It’s a little hard to know what to make of August: Osage County until its final moments. Adapted from Tracy Letts’s award-winning play, with Letts himself handling the screenplay and John Wells directing, the film is a chewy, angry piece of storytelling about the way families destroy each other, and about how we always wind up bequeathing to our children the sorrows we think we’re sparing them. It’s often vitriolic and uncomfortable — the story is anchored by domineering matriarch who, reeling from grief and sickness, lashes out at everyone in her life — but it’s also sometimes bubbly and funny, percolating along like a standard tale of family dysfunction before veering into even darker territory. Individual scenes and moments have real magnetism, but larger arcs fall flat and have to be forced to unfold. In other words, there’s a curiously mixed quality to the whole thing. In the seconds before the credits roll, though, the film makes more sense. After economically laying waste to her remaining family members, the mother of the clan is forced to face the fallout of her deeds, and Wells and Letts seem poised to end things on a grim but proper note of reckoning. Yet before Wells can follow through, the action shifts to another character that’s escaped the family home, and we’re treated to a few wordless minutes of simple smiles and “thinking” faces as this person stares into the sunset, digs deep to find some kind of peace with the situation, and drives on. The final note, then, is not one of damnation or vulnerability or even consequence, but merely bland inspiration.
This wouldn’t matter that much if the entire two hours leading up to this point hadn’t been steadily making the case that hate poisons everything and everyone it touches, and that none of these people will escape unscathed. Most of the people here are confused, angry, self-destructive, and more than willing to project that hurt onto those around them, and the few moments of genuine peace and forgiveness inevitably end in some kind of tragedy. That’s the narrative world this film is in, and that’s the kind of story it wants to tell. So it feels phony for Wells to throw a Hail Mary at the end and try to end on some note of genial can-do-spirit given what’s come before. (The final shot even freezes before washing into a sepia-choked title sequence that trots out the cast for a curtain call, like telenovela credits processed with Instagram.) And it turns out I’m right. The ending wasn’t part of the original screenplay (or play), and was inserted as a way to appease test audiences. It’s a tonal disconnect because it’s not supposed to be there.
This is how to think of August: Osage County: as a movie that doesn’t quite have the strength to be itself, and as a project assembled piecemeal to capture awards attention instead of standing on its own. Watch it for more than a few minutes, and the seams start to show. The lackluster drive isn’t because the people involved don’t understand how to present the material, but because they know all too well how to take advantage of every bite of scenery. This is a showcase piece, a string of monologues and fights a bit too far removed from any storytelling urgency. And that’s a nail in any film’s coffin, whether you’re doing a mostly straight adaptation of a stage play or creating something new just for the screen.
When patriarch Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) disappears one day, leaving behind his cancer-ridden, pill-popping wife, Violet (Meryl Streep), the three Weston daughters reunite to deal with mom, each dragging their own tattered baggage. There’s the grim and uneasy Barbara (Julia Roberts), who comes with her husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor), and their daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin), though she and Bill are separated; buoyant and insecure Karen (Juliette Lewis), who brings along her fiance, Steve (Dermot Mulroney); and quiet Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the only daughter who hasn’t moved away and who’s been dealing with her mother’s abuse the most over the years. Also along for the ride are Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), Violet’s sister, and Mattie Fae’s husband, Charlie (Chris Cooper), as well as their son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). The film’s staginess shows up early on, as the scattered members of the Weston clan start to gather at the family home on the Oklahoma plains: they’re given reason for being there, though the setting itself doesn’t have any weight on screen. Wells doesn’t quite root the film in a sense of place, and for all the Westons talk about Oklahoma, the movie itself could be set anywhere.
Once it gets up and running, though, the film settles into a basic stop-start routine: bring together two family members, shake them, watch them fight, then clear the ring for the next pair. Violet is a cruel, sad, vicious old crone who’s spent most of her life emotionally abusing her family, and Beverly’s disappearance is all the cue she needs to project her own greed and hate onto their lives. For instance, she scorns Ivy for not being in a relationship, though Ivy indeed has someone in her life, as well as a number of trials she’s never disclosed to her mother. When her sisters ask Ivy why she never talked about her problems, she says that Violet “doesn’t need another excuse to treat me like some damaged thing.” Letts’s story hinges on the way we hide things from each other, and the price we pay for trying to get away with it. Hidden affairs take high tolls; stagnant marriages are built on major deceptions; relationships crumble for reasons we don’t understand. The Weston clan tears itself apart over the course of a few days, as everyone tries to find a way to come to peace with the fact that they hate their family.
Streep, of course, is a howling force of nature here, and sometimes overpowers everyone else in the film. She goes full-throttle at everyone around her, spewing bitterness and judgment and always spoiling for a fight. Yet Streep’s also strong enough to make Violet truly pathetic: even as you hate her, you feel a sick pity at the sight of someone so desperate and alone. She’s a fascinating character, and Streep is almost predictably magnetic in the role. Her counterpoint, though, comes with Cooper’s portrayal of Charlie, as kind and slow as Violet is nasty and quick. He’s a man devoted to second chances and easy forgiveness, and he’s the sole voice of compassion in the family. Barbara is the one Violet corrupts the most — by the end of the film, they’re even clad in similar bathrobes — but Roberts’s attempts to shout down Streep feel shrill. Most of the rest of the cast are called upon to try and up their game to match Streep’s level, as if volume were the same thing as power, but Cooper’s quiet strength is one of the real show-stoppers.
Yet that’s ultimately the film’s problem: it feels loaded with show-stoppers, as everybody gets their chance to really act up a storm, which in this context looks like wild swings between shouts and murmurs. It stops feeling like a story being told for our benefit and starts to feel like a series of monologues performed as part of a staged reading. Everyone involved is good, but there’s also not much pretense that they’re here to do anything other than try to nail their words to the back of the theater and impress some members of the Academy. Letts’s meaty dialogue is both melodramatic and blackly funny (Beverly takes actual pleasure in the irony that Violet has cancer of the mouth), and Wells does a solid job staging individual scenes and giving everything a uniform (if forgettable) look. In the end, though, despite its ability to work in small doses, the film suffers from its own insecure desire to be liked. This is not an easy story to take, and in trying to make it so, Wells winds up making the Westons even more intolerable. If only he, or the Weinstein Company, had the courage of Violet’s convictions. The film might not get anywhere when it’s time to pass out this year’s trophies, but it sure wouldn’t go quietly.