Review: August, Osage County

Wednesday was $5 day at my local theater, so after watching Frozen, I set out to give myself emotional whiplash by heading straight into August: Osage County.

Okay, that’s a lie.  I set out to watch Benedict Cumberbatch in one of his five movie projects released in 2013, and perhaps to see what Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan MacGregor, et al. brought to it.  The emotional whiplash was just a side effect.

August is the time of year, Osage county in northern Oklahoma the place.  Plot summary: author Beverly Weston disappears from his home (and, incidentally, puzzles me, because who names their son Beverly?  I bet he had a brother named Sue Not-Appearing-In-This-Film).  His family – 3 daughters, a sister-in-law, and their respective spouses/children – come home to empathize with his wife Violet while waiting for him to turn up, and are thus ideally placed for the funeral when he turns up drowned.  And then, the players having congregated on the board, family dynamics drive each person hither and yon again.

At first, I thought “This is one of the realest stories I have seen in a while.” The rural Oklahoma setting, for one, reminds me of my familial home down in southern Illinois in so many ways. It has the flat land, the oil wells, the unforgiving heat and the shimmer of the air, the small town nearby, even the left turn from the highway onto the dirt road heading home. The cars they drive, the style and decoration of the house, the casserole dishes: it all felt familiar, more familiar than I’ve seen in a film before.

You may be focusing on the knock-down brawl going on, but I am looking at those wooden pillars at the sides of the room. My grandparents’ house has pillars just like that!

Then there’s Meryl Streep as Violet Weston.  She’s phenomenal.  She stumbles in as Beverly interviews a young woman, Johnna, to be housekeeper.  “You an injun?” Violet asks, with the casual racism of the woman too old to care about political correctness (or too apathetic until she can attack someone else for alluding to childhood games of “cowboys and Indians”).  The way her voice alternately sweetens and sharpens as she asks Johnna about herself, addresses her husband, and gives some details about herself and her mouth cancer – I have seen that before, mostly in my grandmother as her own dementia began to progress.

Bev disappears.  The girls come home from Colorado and Miami, everyone bemoans the heat, the sheriff arrives with news and a body that needs to be identified, the funeral is followed by the most painful funeral lunch you ever saw.  Violet’s speech, her swift changes of mood, her not-always-appropriate anecdotes, her occasional lapses into bitterness over her children and what she sacrificed for them – these all prompt the other characters to react accordingly, also true-to-life.

Then it all goes a bit…screwy.  No, more than a bit.  The Weston family is far more dysfunctional than mine: there’s more divorce, the lone teenager is angstier (shame she doesn’t have siblings or cousins), there’s such distance between everyone…not to mention suicide, a touch of drug use (prescription and otherwise), and a soupçon of accidental incest.  Possibly more than a soupcon, actually.  There’s also far less religious observance – you can tell by the awkwardness of the mealtime prayer – which helps explain why no one ever seems to have heard of forgiving, forgetting, or wishing for another’s good more than one’s own.  Toss that all in a room together, and it becomes one big powder keg.

Here’s where the post-Frozen whiplash gets bad: whereas Anna trusts her sister Elsa unstintingly despite years of isolation (and that one time with the ice spikes), and Elsa protects Anna the best she can after conquering her fears, the Weston ladies are, as Ivy puts it, “Just people accidentally connected by genetics.”  You can’t pick your family, it says, though Charles Aiken (Bev and Violet’s brother-in-law) reminds everyone in word and deed that you can choose how to regard your family.

That’s more or less the upshot of it.  Violet and her oldest daughter, Barbara, might provide grim amusement with their increasingly vicious, obscene, and histrionic hollering, but I reckon they’re more important as an all-too-realistic cautionary tale.  I’ve read that Tracy Letts, the playwright and screenplay writer, is preoccupied with the question of “whether it’s ever possible to overcome the dysfunction passed down through generations.”  Of course, yes, it’s possible – but not alone. You need grace for that.  And grace, like Sue, is not appearing in this film.

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