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'August: Osage County': Chilling tale, heated dialogue (film review)

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August : Osage County

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Families, no matter how seemingly normal, usually feature an element of dysfunction. In fact the definition of family deserves revision so as to include this requirement. Academy Award nominated film “August: Osage County” explores the notion of familial interactions, focusing on the phenomenon of dysfunction. It’s superbly acted, well-adapted, and depicts heavy material while eliciting a few chuckles. One of 2013’s best flicks, “August: Osage County” is certainly a film to see at least once.

Based on Tracy Letts’ play of the same name, it’s fairly apparent “August: Osage County” is adapted from the stage. Yes, the opening credits convey this tidbit, but action throughout features a play vibe. Dialogue and conversation drive the narrative, and a substantial number of scenes involve mealtimes. The dining room plays a prominent role. Music is rather minimal, and when there’s a score it takes a backseat to the gripping dialogue.

As the title suggests, the film takes place in Osage County, Oklahoma in August. This summer features a wave of unseasonable heat. Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) enlists the services of Native American Johnna (Misty Upham) in caring for his wife Violet (Meryl Streep). Violet suffers from mouth cancer, as well as multiple addictions. Walgreens pales in comparison to her pill collection. Beverly goes missing, and Violet’s estranged family reunite to offer support. Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), appears first with husband Charles (Chris Cooper). Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the only of Violet’s three daughters still living in town provides care while the other two make the trek. Her sister Barbara (Julia Roberts) travels from Colorado with husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their teenager Jean (Abigail Breslin). Finally. The third sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) sashays in with her latest squeeze Steve (Dermot Mulroney).

Though the estrangement is quite obvious, the scale of familial tension gradually unfolds, and continues to do so for the entire film. Dysfunction isn’t limited to Violet and daughters; Barbara and Bill are separated, and Jean expresses outward discord with both parents, particularly her mother. Karen drags Steve in tow, introduced as her latest fiancé. Steve is thrice divorced, and no he does not live in a van down by the river.

“August: Osage County” is one of the movies where you keep telling yourself that the situation can’t get any worse, and somehow it does. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a Flannery O’Connor story. Despite the Oklahoma setting, there’s a distinctly Southern tragedy atmosphere. There’s even a romance between relatives: Ivy has a fling with her first cousin “Little Charles” (a shockingly Americanized Benedict Cumberbatch). While the three daughters begrudgingly offer support for their ailing mother, Violet constantly criticizes and belittles her offspring. Ironically, the movie illustrates the adage “Like mother, like daughter.” Despite the clear dislike, bordering on hatred of their own mother, Violet’s alienation from Beverly is represented in her children: Barbara from Bill, Karen from her exes, Ivy in her secret relationship with Little Charles.

Action may appear to center on Barbara, but this is largely due to her status at the most domineering of the trio. Karen is the flighty one, Ivy quiet and superficially obedient. Across the board, acting is near perfect. Always-captivating Meryl Streep plays a believably bitter and domineering character. From her continual smoking (despite mouth cancer) and reliance on narcotics, she exhibits an infatuation with martyrdom. Rather than better her situation, she’d rather bear a cross and bitch.

Barbara, for all her protestations against her mother, mimics Violet’s controlling behavior. Julia Roberts gives arguably her best performance, matching Streep’s intensity. Chris Cooper fills a refreshingly mellow, yet firm presence as Charles’ caring father. Additionally, he’s one of the sparse characters with any redeeming qualities. Benedict Cumberbatch proves his worth in a drastically different role from genius sleuth. That being said, there’s a nagging feeling the whole time that he’ll drop the ordinary ruse, adopt his familiar British accent and explain the entire scenario complete with on-screen text and flashbacks. He somehow manages to sing in an American accent, a commendable feat. Dermot Mulroney’s performance adds much needed, though brief, comic relief as Karen’s sleazy boyfriend. Keep an ear out for his recognizable ringtone, a great little Easter egg. Abigail Breslin gives an understated though convincing performance as sulking hipster teen Jean. She smokes, wears thrift store shades and gets jazzed up over the colorized “Phantom of the Opera.”

The superb script is truly brought to life through the star-studded cast. Each of the actresses and actors could headline a movie alone, so the combined effect is overwhelming. As stories are recounted, and new information divulged, you can’t help but squirm in discomfort, or gape at the latest reveal. Unfortunately, towards the end of the narrative you begin expecting some outlandish situation and realize that the scene is destined for exponential dysfunction. A few of the later twists become apparent in that the viewer simply has to imagine the worst possible outcome. Seriously. This mild predictability might evade you if you aren’t afflicted with the ability to forsee intended cinematic surprises (it’s a gift and a curse). However, it’s the on-screen interactions which make this a masterpiece, and you’ll likely find yourself too entangled in the rapid, increasingly twisted drama to notice minor quips. “August: Osage County” is sure to entertain, and falls into an elite category of films which deserve at least a second viewing to fully experience.

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