What families do to each other. August: Osage County
February 6, 2014
On a date night a few days ago, my wife and I saw August: Osage County. It had been at the top of our want to see list ever since its release a couple of months ago.
The few words of this post cannot do justice to the power of the movie.
In this emotionally charged film, Merly Streep and Sam Shepard play the matriarch and patriarch of a family. They live in rural Oklahoma, a god-forsaken outpost. Shepard is at the tail end of a long career as a writer. When he reaches the end of his rope, figuratively, the entire family comes unraveled.
The tragedy that strikes the patriarch forces a reunion where the unspoken pacts that families construct, those tacit lies that paper over things too difficult to address, boil to the surface, scalding the hide off everyone in the house.
I have been a fan of Meryl Streep for many years. However, her portrayal of the clan’s mother in my view forever establishes her as the greatest living actor of our time. The only role comparable in its emotional power I can recall was her remarkable performance in Sophie’s Choice.
August: Osage County is not Sophie’s Choice. In Sophie’s Choice the power of the film flowed from an inhuman decision forced on a mother during the Holocaust. But in August: Osage County it is not an external cataclysm that drives the plot. Rather we see human conflict, the ordinary tectonic shifts with which each of us is familiar. It is because the conflict is so known to us, so close to home, that we cringe and grieve and inspect our own lives as we watch the movie.
Julia Roberts also delivers a gut wrenching performance as the strict, almost severe, big sister, who has judged her family from afar, never stooping to dirty her hands in the reality of it all.
The entire ensemble’s performance is stellar. We have the sassy aunt with a dark secret of her own; the brother-in-law whose quiet strength stands out against the emotional turmoil surrounding him; the homely sister who has spent her life caring for her parents while the rest of the family members did their own thing; the beautiful sister who has made her life on her looks, moving from one amorous affair to the next, now desperately hoping she can hold on to one last man; the slow-witted cousin who possesses depth of character; the husband whose life with Julia Roberts is coming to an end; the teenage grandchild who comes face to face with adult forces in the most despicable way.
I suppose by now that you recognize that August: Osage County is not a movie one watches for a little light entertainment. It is adult fare. I mean this in the best possible sense. The film tackles many of the most profound and difficult issues of family life, human life. It pulls no punches, pushes the viewer to the edge of her comfort zone and beyond it.
The closest analogy I can make to the book world is that watching the movie is akin to reading the finest literary fiction.
I didn’t know they still made movies like that.