A snarling, scabrous adaptation of American playwright Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning familial drama, John Wells’ August: Osage County (2013) makes its way onto DVD and Blu-ray this week boasting embittered turns from both Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep, amongst many others. We open to the cardigan-clad, world-weary poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) currently under the yolk of his mouth cancer-suffering wife, Violet (Streep). The briefly glimpsed Beverly is a smart but exhausted man; loved – as best they know how – by his three daughters, but bullied by his embittered wife. Beverly and Violet’s marriage is in free fall, held together by a blend of bilious contempt and mutual loathing.
When Beverly suddenly disappears, his brood of daughters – eldest Barbara (Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and the misguidedly optimistic Karen (Juliette Lewis) – are called back to the country homestead along with their aunt, Mattie (Margo Martindale), their uncle Charlie (Chris Cooper) and cousin “Little” Charles (Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch). All three sisters are the product of a an artistic yet distant father and a deeply vicious matriarch. Once the clan are reunited, the Oklahoma family home transforms into a veritable pressure cooker, where cataclysmic secrets are unleashed across the dinner table to tears and fistfights. As with several previous big screen incarnations of his work, Letts again adapts his own text, pushing audiences to the limit of how much acid they can swallow before choking.
Violet is a true woman of the South, possessing an old world pride that cries out for love but demands dominance – which also means ruling with an iron rod. Her aside comments are uncompromisingly cruel, but often equally as witty. Next we feel for Violet’s daughters, each with disastrous lives of their own including failed marriages, multiple marriages or simply no marriages – but who have all failed to escape the shadow of their tyrannical mother. Whilst not a strict chamber piece, the action is, for the most part, contained within a myriad of humid rooms – the familial abode a character in itself. The stifling temperature continues to rise, with Violet insisting on the blackout blinds being drawn. Under such conditions we, let alone the characters, are constantly lead to question just how much of the sniping and belittling we can endure.
Skeletons don’t so much fall out of the closet as leap out on top of us, tormenting the Westons as if they were a band of hapless Argonauts. August: Osage County is the type of performance-led American drama that bullies its audience into submission, making one yearn for an interval that we know will never comes. In each moment, there’s hope that there will be some brief glimmer of optimism – a love that isn’t tainted, perhaps – but both Wells and Letts refuse to let up. In terms of keeping us hooked, August certainly holds firm, but its attempts at comedy go beyond dark at times and arguably never escapes their theatrical heritage. You’d laugh if you could, but over the course of proceedings our jaws are left hanging in despair at the wanton acts of kin cruelty offered up.