Commited cast shines in August Osage County

JAMES CROOT
Last updated 05:00 11/01/2014
August Osage County

COMMITTED CAST: Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in August Osage County.

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AUGUST OSAGE COUNTY (M)
Directed by John Wells

A 2007 hit Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Tracy Letts' Oklahoman matriarchial tale of truth-telling and chickens-coming-home-to-roost is perfectly set up as this decade's answer to Terms of Endearment, Postcards from the Edge and The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

While a starry cast of names and character actors fills every nook and cranny of the Weston family homestead (a beardy Ewen McGregor here, a kooky Juliette Lewis there), August: Osage County eventually boils down to a smackdown between Meryl Streep's pill-popping, bitter Violet (who makes her Prada-wearing Devil Miranda Priestly seem like Mother Theresa, although here she looks more like Sean Penn's Cheyenne from This Must Be The Place) and her cuckolded, resentful eldest of three daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts, in her best performance since 2004's Closer). 

The latter has been able to keep her distance from her toxic mother for some time, however, the death of her father Beverly (Sam Shepard) brings the whole clan under the one roof for what's hoped to be a couple of days of civility. But with the glue who held them all together gone, all hell is going to break loose, especially with Violet spoiling for a fight and determined to air her grievences against her kin and the world.

You can see what attracted the cast (and producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov) to the play. Everyone in the large ensemble gets their chance to shine and there are plenty of moments for award-baiting histrionics.

Adapting his own play, Letts (Killer Joe) keeps the recriminations, with a side order of vitriol, coming thick and fast, presenting a modern day mash-up of Tennesse Williams, John Steinbeck and Arthur Miller (it also has Shakespearian pretentions in its King Lear-ean three-disparate-daughters scenario) as the Weston family attempt to "settle their hash".

Working on the US adaptation of UK dramedy Shameless probably helped director John Leets land the gig here, because there certainly are similarities between the Chicago-based Gallaghers and their more rural counterparts here.

Dialling back Gustavo Santaolalla's acoustic soundtrack and making extensive use of hand-held cameras draws the viewer into the middle of the maelstrom and while at times it threatens to descend into farce, you always feel the motivation and commitment is there from the cast.

There's also something John Ford-esque about the way Letts chooses to frame his characters through windows and doorways and set the action against the backdrop of the vast, dusty, near-lifeless plains.

I found myself clinging to those moments of calm and silence (reflected in the demeanour of the excellent Chris Cooper's Charlie - Violet's brother-in-law and the film's rare voice of reason) while steeling myself for another round of car-crash-level compelling  "truth telling" and "shrill insanity".

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