Vicious Circle: The dark family dynamics of "August: Osage County"

UNHAPPY FAMILY: Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep and Julianne Nicholson in "August: Osage County"

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “It is not what goes into a man’s mouth that makes him impure; it is what comes out of his mouth” (15:2). Violet Weston, the central character in the film August: Osage County has been popping a huge amount of pills into her mouth for many years, but now she has all the more reason to do so, since she has developed (somewhat ironically) cancer of the mouth. It is immensely painful for her. Nothing can compare, however, with the amount of toxicity and pain that flow out of her mouth.

Tracy Letts’s “August: Osage County” was a major success on Broadway in 2008, earning tremendous critical praise and winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, five Tony Awards, including Best Play, and a slew of other awards, including honors for the leading actress (Deanna Dunagan), and the director (Amy Shapiro) from the renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company of Chicago. Fans of the play have been eager to see the how the story plays out when transferred to film. The news that Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts would star seemed to promise success. Sadly, fans likely will be disappointed.

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Too much of the play’s dynamics are changed in the film version. A major element in the tension of the staged production is the entrapment of the many family members, most of them in their mid-forties or older, in the living room and dining room of the Oklahoma homestead where they grew up. This space is also where they have asked their spouses, lovers and children to accompany them to deal with the crisis of their father’s disappearance and the eventual news of his suicide. The closest they come to leaving the confines of the house is the front porch. In the film, however, a good amount of time is spent showing the barren August landscape surrounding this house on the plains. One scenario takes place in the downtown bus station, another at the church funeral, another at a doctor’s office, and a few scenes in the automobiles of the various family members on nearly deserted highways with very few homes alongside the roads. Hence, the atmosphere changes considerably from a claustrophobic mood to a sense of the family’s isolation from the rest of humanity, which even at its best seems like a dreary environment.  

Another feature of the staged version is the dark humor in the family’s vicious conversations. At both the original Steppenwolf production in Chicago and the Broadway presentation, the dialogue provoked a great deal of laughter, often expressing disbelief that someone could say something so vicious to another family member. At one point, Violet says to her sister, Mattie Fae, “You’re about as sexy as a wet cardboard box.” Later, she says to her daughter, Karen, defending her statement that women become less attractive as they age, “I said they get ugly. It’s not really a matter of opinion. Karen, dear, you’ve only just started to prove it yourself.” However, very little laughter is provoked by these and similar remarks in the film. The darkness of the family dynamics is somehow not relieved by the sarcastic humor that made the family tragedy somewhat bearable onstage.

The film’s director, John Wells, who has enjoyed a successful career as a producer of many popular television programs (“China Beach,” “Third Watch,” “The West Wing” and “ER” among others) has little experience as a film director, having only one other Hollywood film to his credit—“The Company Men”—which was not particularly noteworthy. One can only wonder why he was hired to helm this highly honored drama. He seems to have ignored the elements of claustrophobia and comedy that characterized the dramatic production, and he did not manage to turn the talented cast into much of an ensemble.

The central event in the play and in the film is the nightmarish “funeral dinner” after the burial of the father, a once-renowned poet, Beverly Weston. One by one, everyone at the table gets insulted and degraded by the maternal monster, Violet, who claims to be a “truth-teller” when she is actually heavily drugged. In a knockout performance by Streep, she explodes in anger over her own situation and her disappointment at her children and threatens anyone who challenges her, especially her favorite daughter, Barbara. As played by an unsmiling, charmless Julia Roberts, Barbara in no way resembles Roberts’ loveable characters in “Pretty Woman” or “Erin Brockovich.” Instead, Roberts plays Barbara as a mean and, frankly, rather boring woman trapped in a resentful relationship with her mother and a loveless relationship with both her daughter and her husband, from whom she is currently separated but whom she has to sleep with during this visit home.

The quietest of the daughters, Ivy, surprises her siblings at one point, saying, “I can’t perpetuate these myths of family or sisterhood any more. We’re all just people, some of us accidentally connected by genetics, a random selection of cells. Nothing more.” It seems that every member of the family has chosen to avoid such a view of family life by one means or another: alcohol, drug addiction, multiple marriages, infidelity, incest and, possibly, murder. Unfortunately, the revelations of these various lies and evasions do not seem to solve any of the problems. At the end of the film, we do not really know what lies ahead for any of the family as they drive away towards very uncertain futures. But none of it looks good.

Finally, the matriarch Violet is left alone in the house with the young woman her husband had only recently hired to be her caregiver, Johnna, a citizen of the Cheyenne nation. And herein lies a minor dramatic motif. Early in the film, as Barbara and her daughter and husband drive to the family home through the barren August farmland of Oklahoma, she remarks, “We screwed the Indians for this?” At another point, Violet is told that the people she calls “Indians” prefer to be called Native Americans. Violet rejects this, saying, “They aren’t any more native than me…. Let’s just call the dinosaurs ‘Native Americans’ while we’re at it.” Meanwhile, Johnna cooks and cleans for the family, preparing the “funeral dinner” for ten, while Violet announces that she and Beverly only ate “cheese and saltines, or a ham sandwich. But I can’t tell you the last time that stove oh…turned on. Years.”  Why does this not surprise us?

So Violet, deserted by everyone in the family, goes to Johnna and cuddles up in her lap, whimpering while Johnna rocks her in her arms. Earlier in the film, Violet has said, “I don’t know what to say to an Indian.” Good, Violet. Say nothing.

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