For as much of the ground that films covering the dysfunctional family have shown, August: Osage County mines out some new and interesting territory in it, combined with fire-cracking performances by two of the best in the business. Largely storytellers attempting to make a film that many others have tried do not appear to be as pragmatic and confident as this, and the film was a nice change of pace in the genre.
Tracy Letts, who many would otherwise recognize as the dastardly Senator Andrew Lockhart from Homeland, adapted his play into a screenplay which John Wells (producer of such television touchstones as ER and The West Wing) directed. Violet Weston (Meryl Streep, Fantastic Mr. Fox) is dealing with cancer and an addiction to painkillers, but when her husband comes up missing, she enlists the support of her family. She has three daughters: the oldest is Barbara (Steve Coogan, Larry Crowne), who is living in Colorado and recently separated from her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor, The Impossible), and they have a indifferent teenaged daughter in Jean (Abigail Breslin, New Year's Eve). Karen (Juliette Lewis, Due Date) comes from Florida, with a fiancée in tow (Dermot Mulroney, Stoker), which is more of a ‘see it to believe it' scenario for the family as she tends to have a new boyfriend at every major holiday. The youngest is Ivy (Julianne Nicholson, Masters of Sex), who lives closest to Violet and helps whenever she seems to need it. Violet also has a sister in Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale, Justified), who is married to Charlie (Chris Cooper, Where the Wild Things Are). They also have a son in "Little Charles" (Benedict Cumberbatch, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) whom Mattie Faye does not hesitate to belittle. With everyone under one roof, all of the strains between various family members are shown, all the more so when Violet's husband is found dead, from drowning on their boat.
At first glance the film would seem to encompass the entire family, but Violet's husband Bev is played by Sam Shepard and he is dispensed with all too early (for my taste, at least), leaving the focus between the Weston women. As a result, the relationship each has with one another is fascinating, and each feels authentic and relatable in some way. Violet is a nasty woman, one who drifts in and out of a haze from her addiction, seemingly treating her daughters as some form of personal disappointment. This culminates in a dinner with the family, held hours after burying Bev. Violet lays it all out on the line to a degree, being prevocational with Barbara and Karen, somewhat dominant over Ivy, sharing a bond of loyalty with Mattie Fae (this being explained after the latter endured an attack with a hammer (defending Violet) when the two were younger). The scene turns out to be pivotal as it puts the family onto directions that are seemingly irrevocable. Streep is excellent in the role, it may go down as one of her more underrated performances.
While Roberts has gotten a lot of praise, the actresses playing her siblings match her stride for stride. With Nicholson, Ivy is the closest link to the children for Violet and undertakes this almost as a burden, to the point of stifling her own hopes and dreams. Karen's ‘flightiness' is something I see in my family to a degree and Lewis nails this rather well. They have their own feelings about what Barbara has done since leaving Oklahoma. While there would appear to be some resentment, it is minor because each has had to put in their time with their mother, to occasional dread, and it is that link that keeps them together to a large degree. Their interactions with each other are almost as impressive with those with their mother.
Also impressive is that August: Osage County shows us the impact that Violet has had on their other relationships. To a degree, it is a reflection of how the daughters are in their adult lives, with Barbara being mean to Bill. To be fair there is some justification in this in that Bill had committed adultery, but one could sense how it had gotten to that point. Ivy kept her relationship with Little Charlie quiet so to not rock the boat, but soon the reason why is touched upon. Karen bounces from man to man perhaps to seek some form of happiness she never had, but seeing how the toxic actions of the parent can impact the children in various ways struck a chord and its straightforwardness in telling was surprising for a film of this cast.
There are a couple of elements that border on the needlessly dramatic. An element of conflict in the relationship between Ivy and "Little Charles" tends to border more on catering to the proverbial Midwestern stereotype for one thing. And some of the other performances fall victim to lot of big names already taking up space, so they are not given as much time as one would presume. Cumberbatch is the main example, though one could say the same thing to a degree for McGregor. In the film's defense, Mulroney plays his occasional time well and to a fair amount of laughter, and Cooper turns in a performance that quietly not too bad either.
Many times a film like August: Osage County would come and go with nary a blip. Independent filmmakers would usually do it and those few who would see it would be impressed and move on. While there is some moving on to be had here, so many within this ensemble are mammoth presences themselves and seeing it all play out of over the course of two hours in something that comes off as meaningful was a welcome sight to experience.
Presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and using the AVC codec for this high-definition transfer, August Osage County looks sharp as a nail. Textures in clothes and wood within the walls and doors is easily discernible, image detail is good in the foreground and even better in the background, with the Oklahoma flatlands looking clear, to the point of spotting individual branches, stalks and the like. The browns and blacks from the area are reproduced accurately and deeply with little reservation on saturation or blocking, and a thin layer of film grain is present during viewing. It is excellent viewing material.
DTS HD Master Audio 5.1 surround rules the day for the feature and it is just as up to the task. From the opening strains of Eric Clapton's "Lay Down Sally" to the music written for the film by the band Kings of Leon, the music in the film sounds clear and has enough of a low-end oomph to make for good listening. The dialogue the film carries through most of it is consistent and directional effects (along with channel panning) are present through many scenes. It was a much better than expected time.
Wells and the film's Director of Photography Adriano Goldman join up for a commentary on the film. They get into the history of the house location quite a bit (a kit house bought from Sears in the 1920s for $600!) before discussing the challenges in shooting there. Set design is raved about, along with thoughts on the cast and the characters they portray. It transitions from shot breakdown to anecdotal information on the shooting rather seamlessly, discussing the Oklahoma location in larger detail, and some of the impressions on how the actors worked. It is a nice complement to the film in general. The making of look at the film (19:45) is less of an EPK and more of a montage from onset interviews, post-screening Q&A sessions and junket tours for the film, so in that vein it is a nice change of pace. The substance is not unlike other making-of pieces, examining the cast and crew's thoughts on the story, the characters they portray and working with and among the ensemble, along with some anecdotes about working on the production. From there, five deleted scenes follow (10:47), which include optional commentary from Wells and Goldman. They are a mix of incomplete and redundant material. "On Writing" (7:39) includes his inspirations for writing the story, what he learned from it and his thoughts on how the actors handled the characters. It should be noted there is a separate package that includes a standard definition disc and a code for a digital copy via Ultraviolet for those who wish to avail themselves of it.
With its arrival to video, those who have only heard about August: Osage County have little excuse left to miss out on engaging performances from Streep, Roberts and Martindale, and complementary ones that make the film a tremendous time. Technically, the disc looks and sounds excellent, and from a bonus material perspective could have used a little more. I think it is the type of film one can come back to in a year and see something else from it, and continue to do so several times over.