‘August: Osage County’ Is Funny, Moving and Superbly Performed


I flew to Toronto all the way from Poland. And after the screening of August: Osage County I knew that if I had gone there just for this one film, it would still have been worth it. Based on Pulitzer Prize-winning Tracy Letts’ play, the film is a piercingly insightful experience, funny with all the absurdity of life, sad with its irreversible drive towards death.

John Wells (The Company Men) managed to assemble a truly impressive cast. Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Sam Shepard, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Chris Cooper, Julianne Nicholson, Sam Shepard, Margo Martindale and Abigail Breslin in one single film. One! Directors very often cast well-recognizable actors, because they want to attract an audience and give the public a sense of comfort that’s provided by familiar faces. In this case every casting decision is fully justified by the script. When, at some point, the whole family meets at a table, we witness the purest embodiment of what teamwork means acting-wise. Every trivial remark amounts to a level of high art, the conversation as a whole resembling a skillfully composed symphony, just with insults, regrets and harmful jokes instead of musical notes.

The film discretely yet effectively incorporates local landscapes of the real Osage County in  northern Oklahoma, where it was shot. Vast, majestic landscapes are a silent, yet evocative context – and counterpoint – to the loud, all-over-the place on-screen micro-dramas. When family members are literally vomiting over each other with past grievances and deep-hidden secrets, endless fields of grains and grasses rustle rhythmically, as if watching the impending disaster with utter disbelief.

Diverse characters meet in a closed space and it’s their conversations that propel the action – at first glance, August …  can draw associations with Carnage, Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s play. But it soon becomes clear, that Wells is not aspiring to be a master of formal exercise. His use of space and time has theatre-like economical sense to it but instead of focusing on the dramatic structure he uses it as a pretext to tell a story of the most toxic and lethal of all human addictions – family.

The Academy will have to decide whether it is acceptable to award the same actress just two years after her previous win. However impressive Meryl Streep’s transformation was in Iron Lady” the truth is that her performance in August… rises way above that role. As a self-centered, uber-cynical matriarch addicted to pills and constant attention, under Wells’ direction she’s created one of the most memorable performances of her outstanding career. With a cigarette seemingly permanently attached to her lips and bizarre wig concealing devastating effects of chemotherapy, Violet is a breathtaking combination of outrageous and sad. In this character despair meets ruthless bitterness, melancholy mixes with utter lack of compassion, keeping the viewer constantly invested in the story. Fortunately, our emotional effort is regularly rewarded with brilliantly sarcastic jokes that entertain, yet don’t take away even an ounce of the dramatic weight of on-screen events.

Julia Roberts, playing Streep’s daughter Barbara, is an equal partner for the legendary star. She’s authentic, dark, hysterically funny and way too much like her mother, even though her pain is of  a different origin. This is undoubtedly one of the best, if not the best, role in Robert’s diverse career. The director said the actress was truly ready for this not-at-all glamorous, no makeup, emotionally challenging part. “There is a moment in every woman’s life, when your driving a car with your daughter, stop at the lights, see a man gazing at you, and realize, it’s not you he’s looking at, but her. She said she was ready [to become invisible]”. Streep and Roberts – but in fact the entire cast –  act for their lives. Their on-screen battle could serve as a perfect example of what this whole thing called acting (and,in fact, film) is about.