HomeArts & LitTennessee Williams Meets Faulkner in 'August: Osage County'

Tennessee Williams Meets Faulkner in 'August: Osage County'

Although the film is set in the Midwest, its dysfunctional family could easily be transplanted to the South.

I didn’t know much about this movie, other than it was set in Oklahoma and starred Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep. From the previews, it’s obvious this is a family drama, but like one of William Faulkner’s novels, the drama escalates toward a dark place that will have you cringing and laughing at the same time.

“August:Osage County” begins with a scene that shows us just what state Violet (Meryl Streep) and her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard) are in. He’s interviewing a Native American woman to be their live-in caregiver and cook, and you already feel for this sweet woman who has no idea what she’s getting herself into. Violet has cancer and is high on pain pills, while Beverly openly admits that the housework has begun to interfere with his drinking.

It’s tough not to think about “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” here, and part of that may be because “August:Osage County” was also a play first, but in both films you become trapped in the family drama and — like the characters — feel there may be no escape. Don’t worry though, the humor and sharp dialogue of Tennessee Williams is coming.

When Beverly disappears, Violet begins summoning her children home. One daughter, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) already lives nearby and is looking for some relief, while Barbara (Julia Roberts) travels from Colorado with her husband Bill (Ewan MacGregor) and daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). That’s right, this is a star-studded cast, and it doesn’t stop there. Aunt Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charles (Chris Cooper) also show up to check on things, but before everyone else arrives, there’s a knock on the door from the sheriff (coincidentally Barbara’s old flame). Beverly has drowned in the lake while out on his boat in what appears to be a suicide.

Youngest sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) flies into town from Florida, literally in her boyfriend Steve’s (Dermot Mulroney’s) red convertible, for the funeral. Cousin “Little Charles” (Benedict Cumberbatch) is also on his way if he can just remember to set the alarm. He of course misses the funeral and arrives on a bus in tears. In a Faulkner novel, he would have ended up in the nearest asylum.

But the crux of this film and its ode to Tennessee Williams comes during the funeral dinner scene, with everyone gathered around the table and Violet, having popped plenty of pills, turning meaner and meaner. The mood is lightened with jokes about Jean’s vegetarianism and Charles’ extended blessing of the food, but no one wants to be sitting at this table any longer than they have to. The meal climaxes in a reality television-style fight in which Barbara attacks her mother, and you’ll be rooting her on. She’s been about to explode for hours, and I promise you’ve never seen Julia Roberts like this before.

Shedding her rom-com persona, she gets down and dirty in dealing with Violet’s addiction, using more curse words than you ever imagined could leave her mouth. She of course deserves the Oscar, but is up against some stiff competition. If she doesn’t win, “August: Osage County” is still proof that her acting is only getting better with age and she’s nowhere near done showing us what she can do.

august_osage_countyShe’s not done in this movie either and proves to be the one with the most staying power. There’s also the famous fish scene in which a dark family secret is revealed, causing Ivy to flee the property. Johnna, the caregiver from the beginning of the movie, plays a silent part until she sees something involving Jean from the upstairs window that compels her to grab a shovel and take action. This results in Karen and Steve leaving in the middle of the night. We never do learn what Johnna thinks of this dysfunctional family as she serves their meals and cleans up their messes, but it’s she who’s left to comfort Violet in the end.

Originally written for the stage by Tracey Letts, who is the son of best-selling author Billie Letts (her 1995 novel Where the Heart Is was an Oprah’s Book Club pick and made into a movie starring Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd). He’s said the story was inspired by both Williams and Faulkner and also won a Tony Award for his portrayal of George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” so it’s only fitting that “August: Osage County” is a perfect blend of all three.

Letts was born in Oklahoma, the reason he set the story there, but this family could easily be transplanted to Mississippi or Alabama. At one point, Barbara asks “What is this? Carson McCullers” so we might as well throw Georgia in the ring too. The 104-degree temperature, rambling plantation-style house and long-buried family secrets only increase “August: Osage County”‘s connection to the South and the region’s constant inspiration for narratives involving family.

Literary Friday, Edi
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