“August: Osage Country” sometimes feels like sticking your arm into an exquisitely designed, finely-sharpened meat grinder; yes, the machine might do its job well, but why would you want it to? In this earthquake of a story, you are looking at the remains of an expensive china shop with few items surviving intact… and then the movie proceeds to smash those as well.
AOC covers the period directly following a family cataclysm that brings all the crows home to roost, so we can see how things shake out. There are three generations represented in the movie (and a fourth, by proxy), although the main story revolves around the caustic reigning matriarch (Violet) addicted to prescription meds and her three grown daughters who’ve never really escaped from under her damaging shadow even if two left town long ago. One suspects early that the queen tyrant is beyond redemption and the only reason to deal with her is simply so that the grown daughters might have a fighting chance.
These three sisters, now in their 40’s, could be viewed as classic birth-order personalities: Barbara the oldest is the battler and will inherit her mother’s mantle if the kingdom survives Violet’s decline; Ivy is the caretaker, the quiet “girl next door” who has developed a successful strategy of invisibility and acquiescence; and Karen spins her legitimate desire for love and light into a hood to pull over her eyes, too fragile to face the dark. You could also view them via psychologist Karen Horney’s classic “positioning” theories. Barbara “moves against” Violet, as the best defense is a good offense; Ivy “moves towards” Violet by caring for and accommodating her; Karen “moves away” by leaving the house and surrounding herself with everything her mother is not.
But in the end, what you get is one daughter who is becoming her mother in the process of fighting her; another whose life is slowly being leeched dry; and a third who is too weak to properly care for herself. In the Weston family, you’re either a victim or a victimizer… or you cash yourself out while you still can.
While it’s difficult to feel sympathy for Violet, later in the movie she relays a story to her daughters involving her OWN mother that provides a necessary insight as to how she might have become the woman she is. It’s a simple story, offered without analysis; but I was immediately struck by the thought that, however bad Violet appears, she might actually be progressive. The sins of the mothers are visited upon their daughters, and crazy begets crazy begets more crazy, but maybe (just maybe!) if the sisters develop enough perspective, they might lift the Weston name another footstep out of the muck and one day win the family free.
As I noted earlier, the movie is well-acted, yet not necessarily enjoyable due to the constant barrage of emotional violence. I grew up in a dysfunctional house with its own share of sick behaviors and interfamily conflict, but even that was nothing as terrible as what I saw in AOC. It’s difficult to watch people hate each other this openly and this much, with the camera able to capture every sordid snarl, eye twitch, and half-muttered (let alone bellowed) invective. I suspect the grand physical gestures (there’s even a full-out fleshpile at one point) and wild emoting are necessary in a stage setting so that a distant audience can recognize what is happening; but due to the camera zoom such intensity here is jarring at best. Collesium spectactors who cheered over tiny lions devouring tiny prisoners in the arena center would have freaked had the entire massacre happened in their laps.
Streep (the queen bee), who is almost always interesting, can switch from bat-shit crazy to mesmerizing contemplativeness during her quieter monologues, then back again. Roberts (the heir apparent) also is at her best; the disappointment and underlying anger she holds towards Mommie Monster is physically etched on the lines of her face and stark downward slashes of her mouth; when Barbara finally decides enough is enough, we know that Violet’s reign is hastening towards an end.
But at times both of these actors shine too brightly for the camera, and it is the more subtle performances of the ensemble that linger.
Julianne Nicholson (who deserves far more attention) plays the middle daughter as an apropos blend of smothered frustration and uncertain bravado in search of a voice, and Lewis — although it’s much like other roles she is known for — provides desperately positive chatter that suggests she knows deep-down she’s running but just doesn’t have the strength to face reality head-on.
Margo Martindale as Aunt Mattie shows a penchant for destruction as strong as her sister Violet but releases it more as a slow poison that nags and nibbles, eroding will and strength until nothing is left. Cooper plays the simple but kind-hearted uncle who finally gets in a good speech when his patience runs out. Cumberbatch, playing against many of his recent roles, is the gentle cousin emasculated by his mother’s incessant criticisms who badly wants to be worthy of (and strong for) the one woman who values him.
And then of course there is Sam Sheperd as Beverly Weston, around whom the plot centers despite his absence, and whose short scene is laced with sad knowing sweetness and more perspective than all the other characters combined.
The play’s original ending cuts off a few minutes before the movie ending, with Violet reaping the inevitable consequences of her tyrant’s reign. The movie tries to be more upbeat by overtly suggesting all three daughters might salvage something out of this mess, and that perhaps — just perhaps — upbringing is not destiny after all. That maybe even those badly damaged by the sins of their families can still find their day in their sun. Is it enough? I don’t know. I hope it is.