Beverly Weston, played by Sam Shepard is the patriarch of the Weston family of Pawhuska, Oklahoma. He is a failed poet and an admitted alcoholic. One day he decides to go out on his boat and not come back. When you meet his wife and daughters you will understand and perhaps even sympathize with this decision. They are a vile bunch and what’s more they are all educated and articulate, which means that the bile is readily spewed and expertly aimed.
They converge on the family homestead once Beverly is missing for a few days and then more come when his body is found in the lake. They spend the rest of the movie dredging up old resentments and blaming each other for Beverly’s suicide. Dark family secrets are revealed and used like knives to wound and pry apart.
Reigning over this chaos is Beverly’s wife Violet, played by Meryl Streep, a pill addicted harridan who bullies everyone around her. Streep is all over this role which calls for moments of seeming dementia, sarcastic snark, violent rage, self-pity, and unexpected sweetness. You can see how nervous she makes the other members of the family because they don’t know which Violet they’re going to get from second to second.
Keeping up with Streep is Julia Roberts as the oldest daughter, Barbara. This is really the lead role in the story. It’s established that her mother is probably brain damaged from the years of pill addiction meaning Violet is incapable of change. So Barbara is the one with the emotional arc. The story is about her discovering that she is more like her mother than different. They are both strong women but overbearing.
In fact there are no bad performances in the film. Margo Martindale provides a highlight as Mattie Fae, Violet’s sister who is only a little less abrasive. Chris Cooper’s not stretching here as Charles, a working man with a strong moral compass, but it is always a pleasure to watch that man work. Benedict Cumberbatch, who was, I believe, cast in every movie this past year, is terrific as “Little” Charles, Charles and Mattie Fae’s ineffectual son. You could name any actor in this and he or she did a terrific job.
The movie is based on Tracey Letts’ play and he wrote the screenplay, so it’s a little talky and these people are perhaps more articulate than would be realistic, even in an educated family. But it didn’t really bother me that much. The time passes quickly and the performances are amazing to watch.
August Osage County is one of the best films of the year.