Rated R for language, including sexual references, and drug material
Written by Tracy Letts
Directed by John Wells
Starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Margo Martindale and more
Well-done torture is still torture.
Adapted from Tracy Letts' award-winning play by the playwright himself, the big-screen version of "August: Osage County" is a well-acted two hours of your life you'll never get back. What must have been wrenching onstage simply becomes brutal without the theatrical distance, largely devoid of hope or even a real respite from the constant emotional destruction. Pain is an important subject of art, but not when it's used simply for its own sake. In "August," the only way to escape a miserable life is to give up your life entirely.
The plot starts with a mother calling her daughters home after their father goes missing, but the real purpose of the narrative is for every character to make all of the other characters as miserable as possible. Admittedly, it can be painfully accurate about that misery of times – the movie perfectly captures the feeling of those family dinners where everyone grits their teeth instead of crying or strangling each other. Nearly every line of dialogue has an edge to it, stained with old blood.
But the suffering has no meaning. Each person injures each other in an endless loop, and the only change comes when some small spark of hope is brutally crushed. After awhile even the most empathetic person would go numb to it, abandoning the characters to the private little Hell their mother made for them.
As that mother, Meryl Streep chews up every bit of scenery she can get her hands on. Her Violet is a perfect, drug-addicted monster, thoughtlessly and intentionally cruel by turns, and if she were a supervillain or a serial killer she'd be perfect. But every emotion she feels seems to skim across Streep's surface, and we never get a sense of any kind of thought or feeling beyond immediate selfishness or impulse. She's a misery machine, designed only to hurt, and in comparison to the naturalistic acting around her it makes Violet seem like a caricature.
As her eldest daughter, Julia Roberts delivers her best performance yet by staying firmly on the opposite end of the scale. Her expression radiates the total exhaustion of someone who's had to care for a monster her whole life, and every hard word is full of the subtle warping that comes when you're raised in this kind of cruelty and pain. Most heartbreaking are the flashes of her mother that occasionally flare into life, a life sentence that she can't even fully understand she's serving.
The rest of the cast also has some wrenching moments, particularly Chris Cooper as a father trying to protect his son and Julianne Nicholson as the daughter forced into being the silent but obedient one. Nicholson's struggles to find any kind of light in her life, and the desperation with which she clung to it, brought tears to my eyes.
But any time a moment of light shines in "August," someone immediately makes sure to shut the curtains or break the bulb. There's joy in the world, but you won't find it here.