MOVIE REVIEW: ‘August: Osage County’ | A crass menagerie

In Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” we find bits and parts of William Faulkner, and a few reflections in the golden eyes of Tennessee Williams. As someone who grew up in Tennessee’s country, and acted in all of his plays, the comparison is faint.

William’s people were poetic, damaged birds “who had no feet and slept on the wind at night.” They had heart, and tugged at ours no matter how ferocious their anger with one another.

Tracy Lett’s Westons of Oklahoma, drawn from his Pulitzer prize winning Broadway drama, are of a different sort. They are a crass menagerie of another kind, there are the vipers and the bitten, and the damaged goods suffering from ancestral hatreds, secrets and lies.

We meet Violet Weston (the great diva Meryl Streep) who is dying of mouth cancer. It’s clear that most of her life she has poisoned her tongue with Shakespearean vitriol and perfidy, and this cancer visited upon her now has long been on its way.

Violet is now the queen of pharmaceuticals, relaxants, pain killers, uppers, downers and booze. Her hair is almost gone, and she favors Anna Magnani black wigs to soften the decline.

Violet, as the story opens, is being cared for by her prize winning poet husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) who, face aglow with the light of his last sunset, is putting the family’s affairs in order. He hires a native American, Johnna (the fine Misty Upham) to care for his harridan wife. Johnna is a Cheyenne, and Violet has little time for her.

“August” is a long winding road through family pain, that starts with members coming home for a funeral and late summer dinner. You can see where this is going. I will make a point not to give away anything that happens in the movie, as you will need the surprises, shocks, and revelations that occur in the last act, to reward your patience with the interminable histrionics of the first two acts.

The family home is in Oklahoma, but there is a distinct aroma of grits and bourbon in the Sooner air.

Send in the clowns:

Barbara arrives, (Julia Roberts, almost unrecognizable in long, coffee-colored hair and no makeup, and giving the most honest performance of her career) with her soon-to-be divorced hubby, (a miscast Ewan McGregor) and 14-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin). Despite Barb’s early cloudy reticence we soon learn that the apple does indeed not fall far from the tree.

Around the table we meet Violet’s sister Mattie Fae, (Margo Martindale, without whom no dysfunctional family reunion would be complete) the half-witted baby sister Karen (an excellent Juliette Lewis) with her thrice married car salesman fiancee, Steve (Dermot Mulroney), daughter Ivy, (Julianne Nicholson) and her cousin “Little” Charles Aiken (British actor Benedict Cumberbatch). But you will all leave the movie shaken by the performance of the great Chris Cooper, who is so much more authentic than any of the others, it will seem as though he was just there when they came to shoot the movie.

Someone will die, cousins will fall in love and crack open a box of shock and awe. Long sealed closets will fly open and skeletons will dance out with secrets, hearts will be broken, and when September rolls around, the dust of Oklahoma will settle on the antique furniture, and the better angels will come to bury the dead.

Adriano Goldman’s camera perfectly captures the bleak, late summer Oklahoma landscape in the color of dried blood. Director, zoo keeper,cock fight and pit bull manager, John Wells, deserves a medal. I hope he gets it.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.