Adapted by Tracy Letts from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, and starring the woman often hailed as the world’s greatest living actress, John Wells’s August: Osage County is awards bait at its most overt. Buried within its vanilla packaging and sub-standard compositions, though, is a slyer, more compelling vision, a bawdy and black-hearted vaudeville act that defies the notion of “prestige.” Unquestionably a bit of a mess, it’s also a dirty, angry, obscene, and uproarious one, and as such difficult to dismiss.
The film, like the play, follows one dynastic Oklahoma family as they cope with the suicide of their patriarch, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard). His pill-popping, cancer-stricken wife, Violet (Meryl Streep), gathers the family together to mourn, and in doing so triggers an avalanche of voiced resentments, family secrets, and escalating physical violence. Violet—cutting, exhaustingly bitter, collapsing under the weight of her own regrets—is the primary instigator of this battle royale, but she’s matched by her eldest daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts), who escaped to Colorado years ago and can barely contain her enmity for Osage County and its inhabitants. Every branch of this family tree is eventually proven rotten, of course, through a series of revelations that impact every guest at the house.
What works about August: Osage County can largely be attributed to the original text, which is full of cruel twists and savage blows that Letts wisely retains for the screen. This isn’t a chamber drama so much as Eugene O’Neill at a WWE match. Letts’s words channel an aggression capable of winding first-time viewers, as the heightened dialogue (“Eat the fish, bitch!”) and nihilistic overtones leave no room for subtlety. If anything, Letts’s script, streamlined from the play’s three-hours-plus running time, feels pulpier and wilder, undeniably exhilarating.
Letts and director John Wells miss an opportunity, however, in only sparingly incorporating the stark and evocative Oklahoma landscape. In one of the film’s few straightforwardly poignant scenes, Violet flees a stopped car filled with angry relatives and runs aimlessly out into a hay field; Barbara follows her and catches her mid-collapse, and flatly whispers to her mother, “There’s no place to go.” It’s a surprising, mysterious line, and filmed in long shots that engulf the women in their flat, barren surroundings, the scene feels genuinely cinematic. The same cannot be said for the dialogue-heavy sequences, which seem strangely non-directed; lacking in visual ideas, and shot and edited like actors’ showcases instead of real scenes, they provide no compelling argument for why this story needs to be told on film.
Really, August: Osage County begins and ends with its actors, and how well they can navigate the text’s slalom course of cynicism, melodrama, and vulgar comedy. Wells’s cast doesn’t quite read like a credible family, but there’s a flamboyance to the acting here that fits the text surprisingly well. Violet is a perfect vessel for Streep, whose more theatrical tendencies perfectly fit such an inherently performative woman; everything from her side-eyeing at the dinner table to her comically large sunglasses is an intimidation tactic. Roberts is even stronger, fueling Barbara with a bottomless supply of piss and vinegar without flattening the character or losing the audience’s sympathy. There’s an absurdist element to both performances, edging toward camp, that forces the viewer to question their own reactions during the more volcanic sequences: Is this catharsis? Parody? Comic relief? Raw emotion? Neither actress provides a concrete answer, and the film as a whole is much stronger for it.
The play’s bravest gambit is its lack of forgiveness for its characters. As family members evacuate the house one by one, there’s a pervasive feeling of condemnation, as though by merely visiting the house they’re now marked on a path to hell. Wells’s film doesn’t quite achieve that level of pessimism, but that unsettled anger is present, much more so than one would expect from a film co-headlined by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. This isn’t a particularly unique interpretation of Letts’s play, as it feels like a collection of scenes and moods and emotions that are all a bit disconnected from each other, but those moods and emotions remain nonetheless potent in their splatter-paint presentation. Letts’s text is chiefly concerned with failures of communication and connection, and how pain can isolate and destroy an individual. As a study of people trying to understand themselves and each other, shuffling between tones and emotions and objectives, August: Osage County embodies its own themes: Linear meaning is elusive to everyone, including the viewer. All that’s left is loud and messy feeling.