John Wells / USA / 2013 / 121 mins
American drama has often preoccupied itself with the human condition and the failings of the American dream, through the prism of the nuclear family. Tracy Letts’ ‘Big American Play’ won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008. Alongside the likes of Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, Letts’ play-cum-screenplay is a turbulent and tragic family drama that explores identity, nature, nurture and our rite of passage into the big wide world.
After their father commits suicide, the Weston women are brought back together at home in Oklahoma’s Osage County. It’s a bittersweet family reunion that upsets the equilibrium on which secrets have settled. A sense of familiarity and disgust penetrates their relationships and threatens to pull them all apart again.
John Wells’ film works hard to make the situation claustrophobic: the oppressive heat that is characteristic of American dramas hangs, almost sweating out the fierce emotions that have festered, seemingly for years. The soundtrack, featuring Eric Clapton’s hit Lay Down Sally compliments the action, but it’s the dialogue that forms the spine of the drama, every word and pause carefully considered.
The A-list cast includes Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, both of whom have been Oscar nominated for their roles as drug addict matriarch Violet and eldest daughter Barb, as well as Chris Cooper, Juliette Lewis and Benedict Cumberbatch. As each member of the family struggles to manage their grief, the secrets that have held the family together for so long soon unravel with disastrous consequences. And still, Letts’ screenplay is soaked in pathos; it’s funny, perceptive and unashamed of exposing the darkness that his characters harbour. August: Osage County is a modern classic, rooted firmly in American theatre tradition. It is at moments distressing and obnoxious, yet wildly entertaining.