August: Osage County is the third Tracy Letts play to make it to the silver screen, after 2006’s Bug and 2011’s Killer Joe, both of which were directed by William Friedkin. This time John Wells is the man sitting in the director’s chair and the result is a film that lacks teeth and is schmaltzier than the two previous Letts adaptations. Granted: August: Osage County‘s subject matter isn’t quite as dark as Bug‘s and Killer Joe‘s was, but it’s also a much prettier film, with beautiful vistas and a traditional Hollywood soundtrack that hits all the right notes. As a result the film never gets under your skin, but thanks to part of its cast it’s never dull to watch.
The movie’s about the Weston family women, who have drifted apart but are brought together again in the wake of a family crisis. These women and their respective partners join each other in the Oklahoma house of Meryl Streep’s Violet, a bitter, confused and cruel woman who’s a cancer victim and addicted to pills. She’s the main catalyst for conflict in the family, something that immediately becomes apparent in the scene in which she’s introduced. She’s a hag who’s as thick as thieves with her sister played by Margo Martindale, but adversarial toward everybody else, including her three daughters portrayed by Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson and Juliette Lewis. Streep’s clearly having a ball with her character, but she’s so over-the-top, the character such a one-dimensional family tyrant throwing tantrums during the film’s entire run time, that she wears out her welcome early on. Martindale’s Mattie doesn’t fare much better, but Roberts, Nicholson and Lewis do. These actresses play women who all have made different decisions to deal with their mother’s behavior and each other, which creates a very interesting dynamic in which all three performers excel. Their characters and performances are much more subtle and human than what we get from Streep and Martindale, and because of it these women actually hold your attention and move you. Chris Cooper, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ewan McGregor also make the best of their underwritten supporting characters, but the three Weston daughters are the beating heart of the film.
But what essentially holds the film back is its story: it’s a predictable and unoriginal family drama that lacks substance. In an attempt to surprise its viewers, August: Osage County attempts some twists, but you can see those coming from a mile away. Strangely there’s also no real pay-off: the dynamics don’t change all that much, despite some revelations. These people have made up their mind a long time ago and the audience is just there to watch the movie’s characters clash because of it. A disappointing ending leaves you wondering what was the point of it all. There’s something to be said for an unhappy end (especially in the context of Tracy Letts’ work), but because of the Hollywood fare surrounding its plot developments, it’s not an effective conclusion: the tone of the film had you believe you were in for something else than the nihilistic wrap-up you got.
August: Osage County is an unsatisfying film. The plot’s a letdown, Streep’s performance mostly loud and brash, but some of the other cast members do find the humanity in their characters and are mesmerizing because of it. 6/10