Wednesday, January 22, 2014

August: Osage County

AUGUST:  OSAGE COUNTY           B           
USA  (121 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  John Wells               Official Site

This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends. 

This may not be one of the best directed films, playing it fairly straight, allowing the actors to control their own destinies, but it is one of the best written Tracy Letts plays, where you get your money’s worth with this winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for drama, a modern generation follow up to Eugene O’Neill’s posthumously received Pulitzer Prize winning play Long Day’s Journey Into Night, written in 1941-42, but not published until 1956, one of his most autobiographical, downbeat, and searingly intense plays adapted into film in 1962 by Sidney Lumet, an unforgettable work that all but obliterates the American Dream.  Tracy Letts takes the original premise of a dysfunctional family, with the matriarch, in this case Meryl Streep, lost to the mad ravings of drug addiction and a lifetime of hard times and disappointment, set nearly half a century later, and there’s nothing even remotely close to a dream seen anywhere in this picture.  In fact, Letts writes his play around themes originated in T.S. Eliot’s 1925 poem The Hollow Men, which not only includes “eyes I dare not meet in dreams,” instead belonging to the arid desert of the dead, but then bookends his play to various passages from the poem, beginning with “Here we go round the prickly pear, prickly pear, prickly pear,” a parody of a children’s jump rope song that substitutes a desert prickly cactus for a “mulberry bush.”  Set in the hottest summer month of a flat and empty prairie landscape in Oklahoma, this is the family home of Beverly (Sam Shepard) and Violet (Meryl Streep), where Violet takes handfuls of pills to eradicate the pain from mouth cancer while Beverly, in his late 60’s, has been an alcoholic for over 50 years.  Beverly is seen hiring a live-in Native American housekeeper, Johnna (Misty Upham), and even hands her a book of T.S. Eliot poems in gratitude, a prelude for plumbing the depths of what’s to come.  After repeating the children’s song to himself, Beverly disappears, something he’s apparently done before, but due to Violet’s illness, this time she needs the family’s help, so like the cavalry, family starts arriving at her doorstep. 

First to arrive is Aunt Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), Violet’s sister, and Uncle Charlie (Chris Cooper), followed by the youngest daughter who lives locally, Ivy (Julia Nicholson), and two other daughters that lead separate lives, escaping to distant states, Barbara, Julia Roberts, best she’s been since Mike Nichols’ CLOSER (2004), living in Colorado, separated from her husband Ewan McGregor and 14-year old daughter (Abigail Breslin), but arriving together in a united front along with the sexually fickle Karen (Juliette Lewis) from Florida, who has a young man with a red convertible sports car in tow (Dermot Mulroney), claiming he’s her fiancé.  Barbara immediately gets into verbal sparring matches with her mother, much of which is played for biting black comedy, where the audience is initially thrilled with the cast and is hanging on every line, but the mood turns darker and more somber when Beverly is discovered drowned, perhaps taking his own life, leaving the family in a state of turmoil.  Meryl Streep literally takes over the film at this point, with an accent that sounds just like Cher, but at the family dinner following the funeral she’s so over the top that she verges into Bette Davis and Joan Crawford territory in the gothic horror thriller WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962).  While Violet shows a mean streak towards everyone sitting at the table, she expresses her scorn and bitterness one after the other, literally altering the landscape, as whatever sympathy may have been developing for her sickly character quickly dissipates with her venomous language, becoming a choreography of incessant attack mode, eventually met with fierce resistance by Barbara who starts fighting back, calling her a drug addict, and physically attacks her, going after her pill bottles, leading to sheer pandemonium and mayhem.  Screaming that she’s taking over now, Julia Roberts, America’s sweetheart, has never been seen uttering such physically aggressive, foul-laden profanity, where it’s literally a battle of wills, as Barbara orders a search of the house for all the hiding places and flushes the considerable stash of pills down the toilet.  After going for each other’s throats, the mood quiets down for some quiet family dialogue, where Violet opens up about what a viciously cruel mother she had. 

There is little doubt that this is one of Streep’s great legendary performances, stealing almost every scene in the film, but it’s also one of the most vile characters she’s ever played, where many in the audience are left aghast at her despicable foul-mouthed behavior.  She roars and bellows and bullies her way through every moment of the film as she relentlessly goes for the juggler, exposing the hidden weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the entire family, showing her contemptuous disgust with them all, claiming she went through hard times so they could lead relatively comfortable lives, but have they forgotten what she and her husband sacrificed and went through for them?  Did they even know the dire circumstances of their parent's youth, where in one poignant moment she reminds them of the worst Christmas she ever had, which is a decrepitly sorry excuse for a Christmas memory, yet this is what comes to mind when they’re all gathered around her.  It’s cringe worthy stuff, where painful truth is a piercing dagger stained in shared blood, becoming a bloodbath of revelations, but also meticulously drawn out feelings leftover from the Great Depression, which had a way of terrifying people, many losing their minds, but Violet was resolute that nothing and nobody was going to get the better of her, becoming an indomitable force of nature, like a hurricane or a blizzard, where no one was going to penetrate into her female psyche.  She’s a master manipulator at evoking sympathy or drawing attention, but everyone can see it’s all an exaggerated, often pathetic performance, yet there’s something indescribably delicious at watching a scene-stealer of this magnitude perform at this level of dubious moral ground, as behind the façade of sickly cancer patient is a shrewd old lady, perhaps with a greedy streak, who knows how to protect herself first and foremost and will walk over anybody who stands in her way.  She’s a Queen Lear type character, an über matriarch ripping at the spiteful nature of her ungrateful daughters, feeling like something out of a Jane Smiley novel, where life on the empty flatlands of America’s heartland is an arduous job, where each hundred degree day offers little comfort and no relief whatsoever, eventually becoming an endurance test.  While this film carves out the emotional extremes, every family has contentious moments like these, literally a lifetime of uncomfortable moments, where the last place you want to be is confronting a family elder or sibling, yet there you are screaming your fool head off, demanding a single moment’s worth of respect, yet you’re left utterly annihilated by the sheer force of exasperation and disgust, both at yourself and the undignified world you’re forced to live in.                   

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