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Movie Review: August: Osage County
January 10, 2014 | 11:30AM

All words: Alan Pyke

Being alive forces people to make decisions. Some, perhaps many, of them get made without conscious thought. Many of those least-conscious decisions involve how we handle inherited trauma.

Several of the most gripping characters in the sprawling Oklahoma family of August: Osage County choose to treat their traumas with vices. That means pills and booze, respectively, for matriarch Violet Winston (Meryl Streep) and husband Beverly (Sam Shepard). Their eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) handles the problems they’ve passed down to her by compressing them in a mental vise designed to compress emotional coal into strength-of-character diamonds.

Barbara is long gone to Colorado with her husband (Ewan McGregor) and teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin) when Beverly goes missing. The clan reunites, summoning Aunt Mattie-Fae (Margo Martindale), her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper), and their son Little Charlie (Benedict Cumberbatch), as well as Barb’s sisters Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and Karen (Juliette Lewis). Beverly, who kicks off the film quoting T.S. Eliot and explaining he and his cancer-ridden wife’s dysfunctions and vices, turns up finally, and in a manner that lights the fuse on decades’ worth of Weston family dynamite.

That list of actors – each of them note-perfect here, none moreso than Streep and Roberts who seem likely to sweep the Actress/Supporting Actress prizes for their impeccable, frayed, and brutal performances – don’t just turn up for a paycheck. The magnet that lured them is Tracy Letts’ script, which he adapted for the screen from his Tony Award-winning play. The dialogue pops with dark humor incandescent violence that punctuate its darkly comic overall simmer. Letts bounces constantly between the loose joy of group laughter to sudden, frightful tension, creating a pervasive sense of menace that makes it impossible to relax all the way even when the Westons happen to be playing momentarily nice with one another.

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However out-of-control his characters’ choices may be, Letts’ own have all the timing and graceful mechanics of a Swiss watch, so perfectly designed and executed that their inner workings are hidden away unobtrusively behind the overall outward effect of his story. Director John Wells provides the same level of self-control, staying out of the way and letting the brilliance of the ensemble and what is on the page carry the story mercilessly forward. Letts’ final flourish is probably unnecessary to make the story’s body blows land, but Wells’ gentle application of light and dark and his handful of clever choices about which objects to put in whose hands when provide just the right note of film artifice to carry the whole thing off anyhow.

The ultimate effect is gripping. There are so many great phrases buried in Letts’ play, such as when Violet defines male sex appeal as “cragginess and weary masculinity,” or when Ivy declines to participate in the “mythology of sisterhood” any longer, or when Barb and husband Bill let a marital dispute get sidetracked by a disagreement about whether the word is “forsook” or “forsaken.” But in a way the key to what August: Osage County has to say about real human families beyond the Westons is right there in the first sentence, and it’s not even one of Letts’ own. Beverly begins by quoting T.S. Eliot, a man perhaps most famous for writing a poem built around the motif of a spiral staircase.

My parents each taught me, in their separate ways, that the dominant geography of human history is not repetitive circles whereby we tread back over the steps of the people who preceded us, but rather spirals. Spirals seem like a miraculous gift compared to circles. Where circles are a closed-loop slog through inexorable choreography, an endless repetition of the same right and wrong steps for each generation, spirals offer the possibility of ascension and improvement, letting us edit the steps with which we cover familiar ground and even making it possible to delete some of the missteps of the last go-round. Spirals offer the chance to decide which parts of the last, lower-altitude lap we’ll leave behind – which experiences and values and grudges and lessons we’ll cordon off and leave to rot, protecting those who will walk the next lap.

But in those so-often unconscious moments of human choice, spirals don’t guarantee that we’ll commit to the kinds of decisions that would make the next lap better than the last. Our best efforts to evade our traumas – fleeing the whole dysfunctional hive for Colorado, say – are no guarantee that we’ll actually learn the lessons necessary to avoid repeating our parents mistakes.

It’s in those alchemist-like choices about how people spin the bullshit they inherit from their forebears (or their absence) that August: Osage County arrives at its brutal honesty, and it hits with the force of a sledgehammer.

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