“Life is very long,” begins the elderly poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), quoting T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men.” That’s the epigraph to Tracy Letts’ 3-hour-and-10-minute Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, “August: Osage County.”
It’s a fitting epigraph — although Beverly’s screen time is short. In director John Well’s 121-minute film adaptation of Letts’ play, you see glimpses of his very long life — stuffed by alcohol and hollowed from years tiptoeing around his volatile “prickly pear” of a wife, Violet (played by the wonderful Meryl Streep).
Based on Letts’ own grandmother, Violet doesn’t cushion the truth with little white lies. There’s a bite to her bark and it stings. “You look like a lesbian,” she tells her middle daughter, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) — the only one who hasn’t moved away.
“I’m just truth-telling,” she says at the dinner table.
Addled with a cocktail of pain pills, Violet drives away her husband; his disappearance reunites the dysfunctional Weston family of Oklahoma. There’s Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae Aiken (Margo Martindale); her husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their spineless 30-something-year-old son, “Little” Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch). There’s her out-of-town oldest daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts); her husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor); and their 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin). There’s her youngest daughter, Karen (Juliette Lewis) and her sleazy fiancee, Steve (Dermot Mulroney). And there’s her middle daughter, Ivy.
All of them return under one roof in the suffocating August heat.
It’d be easy to hate Violet. She mean, overbearing and judgmental. And women are often demonized for being bossy. (Margaret Thatcher or Nurse Ratched, anyone?) But Letts’ screenplay and Streep’s acting humanizes the jaded old lady. She can be awful, but she’s also incredibly sharp, funny and self aware. Although she’s not cloaked in Prada, you still want Violet to like you. And even if you don’t like her, you empathize with her.
This is particularly clear when Violet tells her daughters about a memory of her mother and a pair of cowboy boots she wanted for Christmas. Long story short: “My momma was a nasty-mean old lady,” she says. “I suppose that’s where I get it from.”
Although Beverly can be compared to a “hollowed man,” he isn’t the only one haunted by “death’s kingdom.” In their own way, each of the characters are trapped by their own demons. Violet and Barbara can’t escape the shadows of their mothers. Ivy and Karen are running away from the truth in front of them.
Wells’ direction, Adriano Goldman cinematography and Stephen Mirrione’s editing capture these feelings of confinement. In several scenes, we watch a car drive along the hilly Oklahoma landscape. The journey is slow. Although the land is vast, we’re stuck in Barbara’s car as she’s driving her sisters and mother home from the doctor. The car slows and stops when Violet says she’s about to throw up. When she gets out of the car, though, she bolts — running through yellow fields. Barbara chases her mother and eventually, they both collapse from exhaustion.
“There’s no where to go,” Barbara tells Violet.
No where except death’s kingdom.
“August: Osage County” was written by Tracy Letts and directed by John Wells.