“Life is very long…”
These encouraging words are what greet audiences as the beginning of August: Osage County, the new movie adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play about familial dysfunction on the Great Plains of the U.S.A., as experienced in the dimly-lit, run down home of the Weston family, which has gathered to see through the disappearance and subsequent suicide of patriarch Beverly, the man whose role it is to utter those few words before he makes his exit.
After he goes, we are left with the rest of his family. Here we have as assortment of characters, all of whom are easily recognizable; perhaps you know that one as the crank at the supermarket, or that guy as your roommate from college – or maybe you know them because, for better or worse, they are your family, too. But whatever the connection, the important thing about this recognition is the fact that all of the characters in this film feel real and identifiable – and that is due to the extraordinary combination of an exceptional cast, a superb script (adapted by the playwright himself), and the economized, sensitive direction of John Wells.
Meryl Streep heads off this stellar ensemble in the role of Violet – the mean, vicious, and now widowed matriarch whose deeply troubled relationship with her three daughters is kept in check only by our knowledge of her own hideous past, and because of the bewildering naturalism and vulnerability Ms. Streep embeds in the fabric of her behavior. Julia Roberts plays the eldest of these daughters, Barbara, a woman who has developed a strained relationship with her own husband and daughter (played by Ewan McGregor and Abigail Breslin, respectively) and who vehemently forebears the tirades of her mother, a woman whom – it is implied – she realizes she is beginning to resemble. Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis play the two younger sisters, Nicholson’s Ivy the unassuming one who has stayed on at the house to care for her mother, and Lewis’ Karen the flighty baby of the family whose high-minded declarations of familial connectedness are made to look foolish against her consistently absent presence.
Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper help round out the cast as Violet’s sister and brother-in-law, with Benedict Cumberbatch as their timid son; and finally Dermot Mulroney as Karen’s fiancé, Steve. That makes for ten principle cast members to keep track of (excluding Sam Shepard’s Beverly and Misty Upham’s Johnna, the family’s housekeeper), but the group is handled with such dexterity and attentiveness that at the end of the movie – after having shifted allegiances to various characters multiple times over the course of the action – you feel for each of them, and feel that you understand each of their dilemmas as much as the others.
Life is long, indeed, but the strongest impression I was left with from this movie is that life is hard – an idea that can be evidenced in every character’s story, everyone’s existential context: how can one be expected to live a sane life after being abused by an evil mother, or at least a deeply confused one? How does one then face the task of becoming a sibling, a spouse, a parent? It’s easy to understand why so much berating and attacking goes on in this movie – everyone seems to have been dealt a bad hand in life, and left to their own devices to oversee the effective transition of child into adulthood. In other words, this movie makes it very easy to see why there are so many messed-up people living in the world. Survival is what these people’s lives are all about, as Barbara identifies to her daughter, before being asked to identify her father’s corpse.
Watching the scenes of this movie unfold as they do onscreen, I could imagine the gut-wrenching and sickening immediacy of these scenes as they were performed on the stage some five or six years ago; if they are reasonably hard to bear over the course of this film’s two hours, then to have sat through the three-hour show must have been excruciating. Although I never saw the play, having only read bits of it, I have been told that it was uncompromising and depressing – something that this movie definitely is not.
The saving grace of Mr. Letts’ adaptation is that – in working with the medium of film – he is able to zero in more closely on the individual mannerisms and perspectives of his characters, giving them a greater sense of proximity and accessibility than the stage is ever able to afford. In the way that Shakespeare often looks loud and bizarre on the screen, the play would have felt too confided and bleak; the camera allows Letts to open up his creations to the outside world and the more delicate shades of their beings, thus instilling a strong sense of hope and spiritual vivacity in the film that is hard to capture in a theater’s single room, with the audience kept back at a respectable distance. I believe that the play and film versions of August: Osage County may both be brilliant works of writing and human emotion, but that both versions are best suited for the respective mediums in which they have been so successfully presented.
In contrast to the awards season hoopla that is currently being made over far less mature or wise cinematic efforts like American Hustle or Gravity, this picture is one that absolutely deserves to be featured in the carnival along with all the other more showy attractions, but that has been largely cast aside, save for the attention Ms. Streep and Ms. Roberts have deservedly been receiving for their performances. August: Osage County grasps levels of the human condition far more pressing and immersive than many of its contemporaries – but that may very well explain the poor treatment it has been granted: it can be hard to watch. For many an onlooker, it may be troubling to see these incidents unfold, especially if they carry familiarity. And in the end, not much is resolved; you can see where the play would have ended and you find yourself grateful that Mr. Letts has tagged on the final little scene that he does.
What one takes away from this film is an impression of the malleability of life – so for those who are set in their ways, looking for an escape or a discussion rather than wisdom when they go to the movies, maybe it has have little to offer. But for those of us who go to the movies simply wanting to see the truth of existence put up onscreen – as realized by someone else, but oh-so-recognizable nonetheless – then this is a movie to celebrate, and to hold dear. August: Osage County is one of the best movies of this past year.