The Exhausting Emotional Violence of August: Osage County

The film adaptation of Tracy Letts's award-winning dysfunctional-family play largely skips the "comedy" part of "dark comedy."
The Weinstein Company

Earlier this year, when the film adaptation of Tracy Letts’s dysfunctional-family stage drama August: Osage County premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, Catherine Shepard wrote in The Guardian that the mean-spirited, pill-addicted matriarch Violet Weston (played by Meryl Streep) “rip[s] strips off the whole pack, sparing no prisoners … choking the air.” This month, The Observer’s Rex Reed assessed that whatever the film lacks, it makes up for in the scenes where Violet's family members “scratch, scream and fight back”—and in The Huffington Post, Marshall Fine wrote that “This particular family get-together is like one of those ‘Royal Rumble’ professional wrestling matches,” and that “no one, it seems, is safe from attack.”

There’s a theme here. For a dialogue-heavy film with maybe 10 seconds of actual physical aggression, August: Osage County is a remarkably violent experience.

That’s not a unique feature of the movie version, of course. As New York Times reviewer Charles Isherwood wrote in his 2007 review of the Broadway play, Violet “flays” the psyches of her family members; her “will to endure is inextricably tied up with the desire to fight and the need to wound,” and she “can keep the blood in her own veins flowing only by drawing blood from others.” But while Letts’s play is billed as a “dark comedy,” the film adaptation of his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning work goes skimpy on the comedy end of that phrase. In the hands of veteran TV director John Wells, Letts’s story of a sprawling, unhappy family all gathered thrown into one crowded house to mourn their patriarch retains a few moments of cathartic humor, but could be more adequately called a lengthy, relentless assault of shrill tantrums and deep, shocking despair.

Violet’s three adult daughters return to their hometown of Pawhuska, Oklahoma, when their father, Beverly—a retired poet and an alcoholic, played by Sam Shepard—goes missing and is found dead a few days later in a river, having committed suicide. Along for the ill-fated adventure are Violet’s overbearing sister Mattie Fay (Margo Martindale), her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper), and their perpetually unemployed adult son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), whom Mattie Fay considers the family idiot (and the rest of the clan follows her lead). All three daughters show up to comfort their newly widowed mother with lies of omission at the ready: Sharp-tongued Barbara (Julia Roberts) has driven in from Colorado with her family, but she’s recently separated from her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), who’s had an affair with a younger woman, and in her sullenness, she’s rapidly driving both Bill and her moody teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) toward abandoning her. Dim, erratic Karen (Juliette Lewis) flies in from Miami with her slimy new fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney), who’s even slimier than he appears—much slimier. And quiet Ivy (Masters of Sex’s Julianne Nicholson) has a boyfriend, maybe for the first time in her life. But her unnamed lover, it turns out, is Little Charles—her cousin.

All these nasty truths—and more—bubble up and spew over in all sorts of excruciating ways. Old family secrets burst forth and new family scandals arise; there’s adultery, there’s incest, there’s drug abuse, there’s molestation. And in varying phases of her ever-present drug-induced haze, Violet finds ways to bluntly insult, abuse, accuse, or humiliate each relative individually until they’ve all abandoned her, one by one, in anger or in wounded disillusionment.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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