No Mercy in August: Osage County

Yesterday my wife and I did what we rarely do: see a movie in a theater. I was hoping for The Hobbit, but it was already gone from the first-run multiplex and not yet in the discount movie house. So we saw August: Osage County. The morning after, I still feel like I’ve been through an emotional wringer on this one.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s extremely well-acted. I saw that the two leads, Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts were Oscar-nominated for it. That seems right, though I have no points of reference on the work of other actors this past year.

Hollywood seems to spit out oodles of movies about dysfunctional families. In this one, the alcoholism and drug addiction are mostly out in the open. A funeral brings everybody home for a tense and bitter reunion. I was thinking there’s cruelty with a much harsher tone than, say, holiday fare like The Family Stone. The Oklahoma-raised Weston family in this movie: the women here have the knives out and sharpened. That’s where the award nominators have zeroed in. What can I say about this movie? There is absolutely no mercy.

August: Osage County is a grueling portrait of family at its very worst. One questions if one can ever escape the debts one has incurred to one’s parents. Meryl Streep’s matriarch pretty much rules the roost here with a knife that stabs, twists, extracts the organs and feeds them to the family for dinner. Her character justifies it by a sense of payback from her own abused childhood. At least one daughter seems to have gotten that formula right in her own life.

I noticed in my research last night the original wasn’t Hollywood, but an award-winning play. While the Oklahoma summer is scenic, I can see how this piece would work extremely well for the small stage. A local reviewer criticized the film for this, but that commentary was off-base. This isn’t a big-screen film, primarily. It’s a study in family, and be reassured: it could happen anywhere–next door if not under your own roof.

The exteriors are shot in green and yellow and gravelly and expansive. But this movie isn’t about big sky rural Oklahoma. Everything happens in the old family house, and the guests seemingly cannot wait to escape. A faint-hearted movie observer might feel the same.

The last scene, in which a truck drives off and the director has the mileage to Wichita, Salina, and Denver in the shot. Well, that’s just perfect. The only question is how many speeding tickets will we get on the way out.

Can I recommend this movie? On the acting chops, sure. There is not only anger, but subtlety from the whole cast. Not really a weak link in the bunch. If you’re sensitive about family today, go to something else. The viewer will need a really strong constitution for the bitter, merciless, f-bombed viewing.

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About catholicsensibility

Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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4 Responses to No Mercy in August: Osage County

  1. Liam says:

    random thoughts:

    I thought Juliette Lewis was miscast.

    The Dermot Mulroney character was kinda reverse-engineered to create plot pivots. Some critics whined about Benedict Cumberbatch, but I actually think he did well after his first scene at the gas station, which was not well directed. Ewan MacGregor was probably miscast, because while I respect much of his work, he seemed like an unlikely fit for Julia Roberts outside of a rom com.

    Abigail Breslin got the sullen teen thing down, but otherwise her character needed more of a center.

    Julianne Nicholson convincingly nailed the role of burdened-into-introversion middle sister. All of her scenes were convincing. But it may also be the fact that this character was the best written, as well.

    Julia Roberts did well. There’s was one other actress who might have done better: Julianne Moore, current queen of the long fuse.

    Chris Cooper did his usual fine work, and his truth telling is of course the real pivot of the whole thing.

    Meryl channeled aspects of some of her previous roles (including One True Thing, and some of her black comedies). I could see and smell her final all-knowing revelation a mile off, though. Might have been much more interesting to have Margo Martindale play Meryl’s role, and vice versa.

    The final Julia Roberts scene seemed tacked-on, but it did allow audience members to determine for themselves What Will She Do?

    • Liam says:

      PS: There is some high camp value in the film. The Julia Roberts scene with the doctor will be replayed myriad times, for its combined visceral fun and camp value.

      This made me realize how similar the film was to Steel Magnolias: the Okie Version.

  2. Todd says:

    Interesting. I didn’t even recognize Juliette Lewis at first. I read she was a last-minute stand-in for someone else they had an eye on. Benedict Cumberbatch, I thought, did an excellent job. The music scene between Ivy and Charles was spot-on on every level. And Chris Cooper, yes. This film is about women, not the men. Bill and the fiance matter not as much. One needed to be creepy, and the other is Barbara’s wallflower/target for practice. Interesting that Bill yells at Barbara the one time she comes to his defense. And anybody could have done the waking scene in the morning. That was just good storytelling … or storyshowing.

    I don’t think they’d have that final scene on stage. The movie could have ended on the attic stairs. My wife asked if she had enough gas to drive 622 miles, and did she have a credit card with her.

    • Liam says:

      “Eat the fish” will probably become part of a dark comedy routine.

      Oh, I forgot to mention the requisite inclusion of the Magical or Noble Outsider (Misty Upham’s home health aide role).

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