Family Secrets, Fine Acting in ‘August: Osage County’

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CHICAGO – There will be inevitable comparisons to the Pulitzer Prize-winning stage version of “August: Osage County” from the thousands of people who have been touched by the stage play. But in giving the film version a chance, there is the same passion, drama and heat of family dysfunction within it, with a dream cast.

What reflects back in this film is family, and how dysfunction can create a cancer that slowly destroys the connections and appreciation of those relations. The characters represent that inevitability, and interact with hidden agendas all around. Sound familiar? Playwright Tracy Letts adapted his own play to the screen, and creates an atmosphere that maintains the power of stage, delivered by a cast who completely understood their difficult characters and were able to communicate them and create empathy at the same time. Meryl Streep uses all of her amazing dramatic powers in the glue of the matriarch, and her truth becomes a weapon that skews and destroys all. Family gatherings can be like walking into a buzz saw. Step too close to the blade, and it’s curtains. “August: Osage County” is the buzz and the saw.

Violet (Streep) is the mother of a brood of grown daughters which include Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis). Ivy is local, Barbara and Karen live elsewhere. When their father Beverly (Sam Shepard) goes missing, the clan gathers around Violet, while the “missing” status morphs into a discovery of Beverly’s suicide. The peripheral relatives, Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her brother-in-law Charles (Chris Cooper) and nephew “Little” Charles, lends support during the funeral.

Julianne Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Margo Martindale
Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), Violet (Meryl Streep) and Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) in ‘August: Osage County’
Photo credit: The Weinstein Company

The gathering for the funeral gains steam, as Barbara’s husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) join in, as well as Karen’s fiancee Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Violet is prone to prescription drug-filled rages, and her inappropriateness is exacerbated by push backs from Barbara, who is having problems in her marriage. Ivy stays in the background, pensive and mysterious. Karen seeks something she’s not getting. There are emotional land mines everywhere.

It is a complex story, but what is remarkable is that each of the characters get their moment within the story, and each of those roles add to the exposure of the family dysfunction. The past sins are eating away at all of them, and although some of the secrets that are finally brought to light are intensely harsh, there is a sense that it becomes all necessary. With this family, it’s the narrative equivalent of diffusing an atom bomb.

In the center of hurricane – and the one who influences the swirl around her – is the great thespian Streep as Violet. There is such a richness to her interpretation, from the willingness to emphasize the character’s wrinkly age to the dynamics of drug addiction, depression and pure spite as a result. But Violet is also the truth teller, to a fault. It’s like a trigger has been pulled inside her, and the way that Streep interprets that change is magnificent. Despite what may come as a reaction to the story, her performance in it is a must-see.

The supporting cast also steps up their game, led by Julia Roberts. “America’s Sweetheart” is doing a terrific job with the transition into character roles, and although she plays Barbara a bit too one-note angry (justifiably), she pushes the right buttons when called upon. Nicholson and Juliette Lewis are fragile flowers in their sister act. Nicholson is a revelation as Ivy, and never overplays it. Lewis is rediscovered with a dead-on execution of a “Blanche DuBois” trying-to-be-younger faded rose. Martindale hides the most and reveals the most through her perfumed performance.

Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Meryl Streep
Barbara (Julia Roberts) and Violet Talk to Ivy in ‘August: Osage County’
Photo credit: The Weinstein Company

The men of the story aren’t as prevalent, but Mulroney and Chris Cooper are notable. Mulrooney’s slick and sleazy player follows through to the last desperate gasp. Cooper is so solid and forthright, and really expounds the set-in-Midwest values. Ewan McGregor seemed the most lost, maybe it was just in maintaining the “Americanism” of the role. Benedict Cumberbatch is the male fragile flower, he attacks the role as an open wound.

There is much to take in, and more to experience. There is courage in this story, as if only to face the consequences. And in life, the healthiest family dynamics are all about keeping their relational faith and telling the truth. It’s that time, place and challenge in “August: Osage County.”

“August: Osage County” opens everywhere on January 10th. Featuring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale, Juliette Lewis, Julianne Nicholson Sam Shepard, Dermot Mulroney, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch and Chris Cooper Screenplay Adapted by Tracy Letts, from his play. Directed by John Wells. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2014 Patrick McDonald,

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