August: Osage County

****1/2

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Meryl Streep on the cast: "John [Wells] was like god when he put this family together - he thought 'oh this will get messy!'"
"We witness the best ensemble acting in a film with actresses in leading roles that Hollywood has produced this year."

August: Osage County is not Oklahoma, the musical.

John Wells' wild and furious family romance is a chilling portrait of an American household where emotions run high and the heat is turned up.

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Meryl Streep's first appearance on screen as Violet Weston is unforgettable: The huge, washed-out black turtleneck, the hair, the ever-present cigarette and the disturbing laughter of the addict have you shuttle back and forth between pity and revulsion. She toils herself down the stairs, cigarette in hand, as memorably as Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, though in an entirely different state of mind, dress, and posture.

The Weston daughters portrayed by Julia Roberts as Barbara, Julianne Nicholson as Ivy, Juliette Lewis as Karen circle around Streep as their mother Violet who has woven a large and perilous web. She is the matriarchal lynchpin, a centre of ill will and revulsion.

"My wife takes pills. I drink," is how Sam Shepard, who plays Violet's husband Beverly, sums up the main occupations of their lives. He cannot stop the endless flow of venomous words. At the recent press junket, Streep said how much she was affected by Shepard's glances. "My wife has been diagnosed with a touch of cancer," he says in the film with what is left of his dignity and has a hard time looking at her.

The prodigal members of the family assemble resentfully in their rural Oklahoma home at the time and place of the title to let loose the individual and collective demons that plague them. Streep's performance makes your blood run cold. Violet's violent mood swings, the horrors on and off medication, create the perfect monster for a Christmas time release.

Julianne Nicholson's Ivy is the only one of their three daughters who still lives nearby. She is mercilessly mocked by her mother - for straightening her hair, for not wearing make-up, for not having a boyfriend. Nicholson's finely tuned portrayal shows the wear-and-tear as well as the still slumbering hope for escape.

Julia Roberts splendidly plays Barbara, who left the family behind out of sheer survival instinct. In the car, when she returns with her husband Bill and her own daughter (Ewan McGregor and Abigail Breslin) she recounts the story of the mysterious death of three parakeets in her mother's house. Even tropical birds could not stand the heat - or the fury of Violet.

Barbara, who fled Osage County a long time ago, assesses the Plains as "a state of mind, a spiritual affliction, like the blues," to her husband only to be thrown into the physical reality of her family with the first hello, which is an assessment of her own weight and her 14-year-old daughter Jean's development since the last visit. Jean is interested in the starting time of her grandfather's funeral because she doesn't want to miss the restored 1925 Phantom Of The Opera on TV.

At the heart and in the belly of the film, sits a dinner that connects them all. The "truth telling" the family indulges in has consequences.

Beyond spoken language, there is movement. When the father's death is announced, Barbara fervently brushes her long hair in front of a vanity, while Violet dances an insane pill fueled dance. Third sister Karen arrives from Florida for the funeral with her new fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney). Disaster shimmers through the worn thin surface of future plans. Steve says he is "in Florida politics" and he is also into little girls.

Age is one of the central themes , and Violet's statements that women only become ugly and always lose their men to the younger ones is echoed by various constellations. The mirror on the wall is one with the mother's voice.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright for August: Osage County and screenwriter Tracy Letts made the Westons a family of poets. "He hired a cook. We never eat. It makes no sense." The pulse of the language cuts through disarray.

No escape is possible, the female bodies will be scrutinised from straightened hair to the socks in the Birkenstocks. We witness the best ensemble acting in a film with actresses in leading roles that Hollywood has produced this year.

The preeminent Oklahoma hay rolls are key visuals in the movie and seem to bind the characters to the earth, comparable to the figures in Jean-Fran├žois Millet's 19th century haystack paintings. Ties to the land and 'Native Americana' are questioned and references sprinkled throughout, such as on a parking lot mural, and mostly through dialogue with and about newly hired Johnna played as anchor in a raging storm by Misty Upham, who has one of the most chivalrous and applause deserving scenes.

Mattie Fae, Violet's sister and wife to Chris Cooper's Charles Aiken, is played by Margo Martindale in consummate symbiosis. The two formidable actresses conjure up a shared childhood for us in a deceptively dazed look here and a bold gesture there. Mattie Fae, called "sexy as a wet cardboard box" by her sister Violet, arrives all family business with groceries in a plastic bag and a pre-packaged cake, sweat dripping down her broad back. "Touch it!" she beckons her husband with an irresistible smile and a cocktail in hand. Martindale plays it as real as it gets - there isn't a single false tone in her marvelous multi-layered performance.

Benedict Cumberbatch as her son "Little Charles Aiken" is fragile and delicate of mind. The way he does his hair with his father's comb and takes Daddy's handkerchief to wipe away his self-perpetuated shame are the gestures of a tortured child. Chris Cooper's Big Charles Aiken personifies all the maternal instinct you will get.

August: Osage County has so many heart-rending, breathtaking, and hilarious scenes of familial terror with performances to match.

Reviewed on: 06 Dec 2013
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A dysfunctional family comes together to deal with a crisis.
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Angus Wolfe Murray ***1/2

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