Critic’s Corner: ‘August: Osage County’

Have you ever woken up wanting to shatter any and all signs of joy with a giant hammer? Well, that’s the type of attitude I wish I had when I sat down to watch “August: Osage County.”

Addressing issues of prescription drug dependency, alcoholism, domestic violence, suicide and even incest, it’s a grim yet powerful two hours of film, as we delve deeply into a tortured family.

After the apparent suicide of the family’s elderly father Beverly (Sam Shepard), a tenderhearted and pensive poet, the Weston daughters bitterly reunite with their mother in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, to perform the post-mortem responsibilities of the self-made patriarch.

Meryl Streep is ardently committed to her role as the menacing yet tragic mother Violet, who condemns her family members to a relentless diatribe as she seeks to cope with the suicide of her underappreciated husband. Denying all condolences, Violet masks her deeply rooted internal suffering with an array of potent narcotics, an addiction previously enabled by her weary husband.

Beyond the roaring monstrosity that is Streep’s character, it’s important to note the fine acting of some of the subtler characters, including loyal daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson). Ivy’s tolerant and forgiving nature in the face of her mother’s emotional abuse helps her to serve as a foil not only to Violet but also Barbara, the eldest Weston daughter (Julia Roberts).

Barbara, who left home early on to free herself from the “madhouse that is my family,” is most adamant in ending her family’s warped dynamic. Unlike Ivy, Barbara is boldly defiant to Violet’s hate and seizes the shifting familial structure as an opportunity to silence her mother. Ironically, however, in her many attempts to face up to Violet, Barbara finds herself progressively morphing into her cruelty counterpart, and mirroring many of the traits she loathes in her mother.

The writing attempts brief moments of comic relief with little quips presumably meant to make light of addiction and mental illness, to the point of normalizing or even glamorizing the afflictions. At one point Violet’s sister Mattie Faye (Margo Martindale) plops down with a glass of straight whiskey at eleven o’clock in the morning and responds to her husband’s condemnation by referring to it as “A cocktail… have some class.”

I struggled to see the humor in these callous misrepresentations of the issues being addressed. If anything, the only comedic moments in the film were nervous laughter as a result of the ever-increasing degree of suffering, as the plot evolved from the depiction of a family’s grieving at the death of their father into a chronicle of a multi-generational history of emotional abuse rooted in self-loathing stagnates in America’s heartland.

Director John Wells bids his audience farewell with a reserved sense of hopefulness in the closing scene, as Barbara drives away from the family compound, never to return, but after spending two hours with the Westons, feelings of disparity are hard to shake.

There is one benefit to this trip through Osage County: dreary Seattle will suddenly seem like paradise.