The Secrets and the Tragedy of the Osage County

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by Nadin P.

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. ~ Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

 

August: Osage County is a film based on a Pulitzer-winning play by Tracy Letts adapted to screen, which is, incidentally, also the first film starring both Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. Shockingly, two iconic females of the Hollywood never got to work together before. Well, better late than never, right?

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Welcome to Osage County! Meet the Westons:

Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), a poet – in the past – and now a full time alcoholic.

Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), Beverly’s wife suffering from the mouth cancer and drug addiction.

Mattie Fae Aiken (Margo Martindale), Vivian’s sister, her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper) and their son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Barbara (Julia Roberts), Violet’s oldest daughter, who arrives from Colorado with her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their 14-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin).

Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the youngest daughter, single and leaving nearby.

And Karen (Juliette Lewis), the middle daughter, who brings over her fiancé Steve [no-one-can-remember-or-pronounce-last-name] (Dermot Mulroney).

The film opens with Beverly hiring a Native American woman named Johnna (Misty Upham) to help around the house and take care of Violet who is clearly not capable of doing it herself, which we get to see in the first three minutes of the film (which is how long it takes Meryl Streep to demonstrate her outstanding acting talent, evoking both sympathy and pity for her characters from the viewers).

The events start really unfolding when Beverly suddenly disappears, and Violet calls a family reunion to help her deal with whatever is going on, bringing the concept of a dysfunctional family to a whole new level. A few days later his body in found in the lake.

The atmosphere of the film feel so toxic at times you can actually feel the pills Violet takes to keep her pain at bay and her mind elsewhere working their magic on you. It fascinates in the way freak shows attract you – you want to look away, but you can’t, you want to run, but something keeps you glued to the spot, and you can’t help but stay where you are, desperate to see what’s going to happen next.

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Despite the fact that August: Osage County is an ensemble film, it belongs to Streep from the first moment to the last. She owns every single scene she’s in, regardless of wonderful performance of the other cast members, specifically Roberts whose character you can’t help but feel for. With her marriage falling apart, her husband hardly being a ‘strong shoulder to cry on’, her daughter going through a rebellious pot-smoking teenager phase, and her sisters not being of much help, it’s not surprising that at some point the feathers start flying. Literary.  Sick of having to deal with Violet’s addiction issues, Barbara doesn’t hesitate to wash her pills down the toilet and at least try to take the situation under control. Which only makes it spiral down even faster.

The film evokes so many conflicted feelings you often don’t know which one to hold on to.

It’s impossible not to feel pity for Violet, considering her condition as well as the truth we learn about her abusive mother and life that was far from happy overall, but after witnessing her relationship with the other family members it’s impossible to blame them for wanting to keep distance from her.

You resent Beverly for taking his life and making everyone go through the nightmare of dealing with it, and yet you feel almost jealous of him. I’m sure most of the characters did anyway.

You almost despise Karen for being so foolish and irresponsible and immature, for taking her boyfriend’s side after he almost rapes Jean, but you can’t really blame her for desperately trying to push away the reality and facing the ugly truth.

The romantic relationship between Ivy and her cousin (who SPOILER ALERT! turns out being her half-brother) Little Charles is bewildering and almost surreal, but it’s impossible not to feel at least a sliver of understanding when you learn that she was basically trapped in a small town in the middle of nowhere her entire life.

*Not to mention that you’ll never look at Benedict Cumberbatch the same way ever again. Where is the strong and charismatic Sherlock in this small and weak and pathetic victim of a person without any will of his own?

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Bill, Barbara’s husband, is pitiful, and it is obvious from the start that Barbara has always been the strongest in their relationship, but it is oh so easy to get why he wants to get away from this life, from this family, from having to put up with the madness he’s been dragged into.

In the middle of all this, Violet needs to find a way to deal with everything at once, and even though she is the strongest person of them all – it’s amazing how much she’s been through without losing it completely, if you can call it that – it may not be enough this time. She fears abandonment and yet she pushes everyone away. She loathes weakness but on the inside she wants to give in to it and break down and be taken care of instead of wearing the crown and carrying the scepter.

You watch her fall to pieces, her sanity slipping away with every pill she takes, and at the same time it’s almost impossible to call her the victim. No, the victims are undoubtedly those around her, stuck in a place, in a moment they didn’t really choose to be in.

August: Osage County is a deep and disturbing story of three generations of people tied together for the rest of their lives by secrets more than blood. It’s a tragic story of unhappy individuals who never truly found it in them to break free and escape, to find a way to severe the bond holding them captive. It’s suffocating, almost claustrophobic, peppered with Violet’s ironic one-liners you can’t help but laugh at because they feel like a gulp of fresh air on a stuffy August day that you welcome without hesitation. It’s a story of broken lives, broken people. and a vicious cycle they’re trapped in.

A story without the end, like life itself.

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Four screenwriters candidly writing about film, television, novels, comic books, video games, and fanfiction.

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