As far as craziness in families goes, it can’t get worse than what’s shown in “August: Osage County.” Start to finish, the film recalls rusty barbed wire, the type usually seen around maximum security prisons. Mind you, the story has nothing to do with prisons or crime (unless bad-mouthing and mean-spiritedness counts). The dominant feeling about 15 minutes in is this: escape. But at the same time, it’s impossible to tear your eyes away.
Directed by John Wells — who assembled an A-list cast under one roof in sun-parched Oklahoma — “Osage…” thrives on the kind of rabid venom you normally associate with cobras. This isn’t anything as mild as a feel-bad film: It could inflict serious and lasting psychological damage. We could sue these people.
Meet the Weston family of Osage County, Oklahoma. Their huge, sprawling house with its many bedrooms and charming porch is a testament to the four-plus decades that Violet (Meryl Streep) and Beverly (Sam Shepherd) have spent together, steeped in discontent. “Life is long,” sighs Beverly, quoting his favorite poet, T.S. Eliot. It used to be that Beverly could take refuge in books and whisky — now all he can think about is ending it all. And so he hires a Native American caretaker to look after Violet (she has mouth cancer), waits for the right moment, walks out of the house and doesn’t come back.”Osage County” leaves you drained and haunted, but it’s also a brilliant piece of filmmaking. The pain is balanced by a sense of gratitude toward performers who have given themselves to their roles with such commitment. Can you imagine Julia Roberts as manipulative, shrill and downright unlikable, with deep creases on her forehead? That’s the Roberts you’re going to see, as well as an unforgettable Streep, playing a woman so poisonous as to make Lady Macbeth look like a blushing ingenue.
The Westons have three daughters, and they drive up as soon as they hear dad has gone missing. Barbara (Roberts) was her father’s favorite, and a thorn in Violet’s side. Karen (Juliette Lewis) is the ditzy one, who appears with fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney) in his fancy red sportscar. Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has stayed in Osage to care for her parents, but could have saved herself the trouble, for all the (non) thanks and angry words she gets from her mother in return.
Once the whole family is seated at the dinner table, the sparks begin to fly. If words could kill, the Weston dining room would be a mass murder scene worthy of the Manson Family.
The screenplay for “Osage County” was written by Tracy Letts, who adapted it from his 2007 stageplay of the same name. The transition from stage to screen is seamless, and Letts’ ear for hurtful dialogue is compounded by the fact that he never lets up. There are no reconciliations or moments of hopefulness. Asking why is probably not the point; it’s an exercise in observing the lengths people go to damage and maim others — even their own children. Especially their children.