August: Osage County (dir. John Wells, 2013)

by Christopher B. Barnett

August: Osage County will, at the very least, make you appreciate your own mother. Based on Tracy Letts’ play of the same name, the story centers on Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), the matriarch of an Oklahoma family on the brink of disintegration. The trouble, it turns out, has been brewing for years. As Letts tells it (he’s credited as screenwriter as well), suffering has been imposed on the Westons in almost Sophoclean fashion. Vi and her husband, Bev (Sam Shepard), grew up poor and hard on the rural plains. And though they managed to overcome their meager origins — Bev, in particular, has become a noted poet and homme de lettres — the past (to paraphrase Faulkner) is not even the past. Bev is as married to the bottle as he is to his books, and Vi is addicted to a cocktail of prescription narcotics, ostensibly to help her cope with oral cancer but, in truth, because she simply prefers to be high. So, when Bev goes missing, there is a genuine sense of foreboding, and the extended family descends on the Weston homestead. It is an irascible if colorful lot, headed by Barbara (Julia Roberts), the eldest daughter who appears destined to repeat the sins of her mother. That mayhem ensues is hardly unexpected.

In a sense, then, there is nothing all that surprising about August: Osage County. Still, the acting and writing are so good that it’s not hard to keep watching. What’s interesting, in particular, is how the movie can’t make up its mind on the problem of redemption, on the possibility of extracting good from the Westons’ dysfunction. Shall the parents’ sins be visited upon the children (Ezekiel 18:19-20)? For much of the film, the answer to this question would seem to be a resounding “yes.” Every character — from Bev to Barbara’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin) — bears some stain from the family’s history. This point is brought to a head in the film’s best moment, a family dinner that resembles a scene from Talladega Nights (yesthat Talladega Nights), even as it underscores Vi’s malignant asperity and its ability to squash any attempt to attain family harmony. That this scene involves a prayer is not insignificant. Vi is happy to tolerate “grace” before meals, so long as one doesn’t really expect grace to arrive. Hers, indeed, is a grace-less worldview: human beings always get what they deserve, and what they deserve is pain.

And yet, as the film ends, a punch is pulled. Sure, Vi meets a fittingly tragic end, but Barbara is given a glimpse of hope — a subtle but significant departure from the stage version, which, in turn, has invited a degree of controversy. Might the children escape their parents’ sins after all? That Letts and director John Wells allude to this question — and, with it, the question of redemption that has animated humanity’s religious sensibility for millennia — demonstrates its ongoing importance. To borrow from Barbara’s last scene, the warmth of the sunshine and the freedom of the open road always seem to beckon from beyond life’s otherwise oppressive disappointments.