Review: August: Osage County (2013)


Director: John Wells
Country: USA
Genre: Comedy | Drama
Official Site: Here

Editor’s Notes: August: Osage County opens in Toronto this Friday, January 10th. 

August: Osage County is the latest film adaptation of a stage play that tries to nudge past its theatrical boundary and become acceptable cinema. But does it succeed? The film is based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts, whose penmanship here resonates over director John Wells’s craftsmanship. The movie’s fine ensemble in turn enables Letts’ dialogue, but Wells rarely enables his actors. Therefore, August: Osage County is a competent “performer’s piece”, spoken with delectable words but without the poignant music.

August: Osage County is the latest film adaptation of a stage play that tries to nudge past its theatrical boundary and become acceptable cinema. 

The story centres on another hot stew of family dysfunction in the homestead, where the dinner table is often the stovetop for heated banter and spiteful conversation. The eponymous county is situated in a dusty rurality of Oklahoma, vast desolation which Sam Shepard’s character introduces over a succession of landscape shots redolent of Tommy Lee Jones’s worn-and-weary voiceover that prefaced the West Texas badlands of No Country for Old Men.


Shown in only a select series of shots, Shepard’s Beverly Weston is more of a calm presence overlaying the restless chaos of the Weston family reunion in Osage County. A drunken poet, Beverly runs away from wife Violet (Meryl Streep), which invites the return of the immediate family: a trio of sisters named Barbara (Julia Roberts), Karen (Juliette Weston), and Ivy (Julianne Nicholson). Barbara arrives with sheepish husband Bill (an aloof Ewan McGregor) and moody daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin); girly-girl Karen struts in with a sly silver fox named Steve (Dermot Mulroney), whose sexual interests take a dubious turn.

The company, at least at first, is only here for mild consolation and pleasantries. It’s a ceremonial act to appease the stormy emotions of Violet, her sister Mattie (Margo Martindale, whose buxom charm recalls June Squibb’s wonderful performance in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska) and husband Charles (Chris Cooper). But when news hits that Beverly has died by his own hand, the undertones of this family gathering start to coarsen. Violet, stricken with mouth cancer, starts to project her bitterness and dismay on her family, masking her insults as “the truth”.

The only truth though to Violet’s abusive remarks is that this family is definitely in need of an intervention. But Letts’ adapted screenplay revels in the dysfunction, particularly the blustery monologues by Streep – the hand that often feeds the drama (and holds the Oscar afterward). She dishes out, with Streep’s usual flippant swagger, humiliation to her familial guests like it was the food on the table. As tension swells, the actors do a pretty good job at giving us a clear sense of their wants and needs. Their line delivery is often mannered, but Wells/Letts do not, I think, try to authenticate the dysfunction, but instead shape it with a commercially-palatable assembly line of “comedy” and “drama”.

Under this check-list routine, Wells seems too eager to please, whereas his better contemporary David O. Russell (American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook) actually studies family dysfunction with his ruffled structure and frenetic camera work that tap into his ensemble’s manic personalities.

Under this check-list routine, Wells seems too eager to please, whereas his better contemporary David O. Russell (American HustleSilver Linings Playbook) actually studies family dysfunction with his ruffled structure and frenetic camera work that tap into his ensemble’s manic personalities. Russell’s films are crowd-pleasers, but they earn that pleasure and fulfillment via their sharply-defined characters and believable conflict.


Wells on the other hand is a more stilted dramatist who plants his camera and hands his actors and writer the keys to his car. While watching August: Osage County, I wondered (facetiously, mind you) if Wells watched all of Yasujuro Ozu’s movies and asked himself, “how can I make this style Oscar Bate-y?” Ozu loved to make films that took place over a month/season (Late Spring, Late Autumn, Early Summer) and examined family dilemmas with a static camera placed at eye-level. But the generous comparisons stop there; Wells does not have Ozu’s depth of feeling or delicate compositions. Rather, he overuses closeups to showcase his actors’s elaborate expressions and isn’t able to let the conversations develop an ebb-and-flow.

It is not my intention, however, to shortchange the performances behind August: Osage County. As I mentioned, there is a heightened theatricality to the actors’s mannerisms, but most of them hold an allure on the screen. As the story progresses, most of them have to keep their composure throughout Violet’s verbal attacks. They carry the tension in this movie; that flinch in their eye is not just a nuance of discomfort, but also a reflex from carrying the weight of the material while Wells basks in his own rote sense of uplift.

Wells also overlooks August: Osage County’s most mysterious character (next to Shepard’s Beverly): Johnna (Misty Upham), the Native American housemaid who finds herself at the receiving end of Violet’s prejudices. Wells pays too much attention to the feuds of the middle-class characters and avoids any identification with Johnna’s calm detachment. She’s too much of a cipher and thus does not add depth to the film’s understated final scene, a conclusion that strays from the film’s previous emotional beats.

There are very few corners to the storytelling behind August: Osage County. Wells/Letts only depict what is right in front of our noses; the lessons about love and mortality are therefore unmissable, but most of all – not subtle. There are several subplots however, and Wells’s strength finally is that he is able to balance them. One of them, Ivy’s relationship with cousin Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch, channeling the aw-shucks of James Stewart), is the most layered one. Otherwise, most of August: Osage County is a very theatrical rendition of family dysfunction packaged with bite-sized human complexity. Letts and the actors at least give it that “bite”.

60/100 ~ OKAY. August: Osage County is a decent balancing act of family feuds and dysfunction. The movie is carried by the efforts of the performers and the tried-and-true power of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play written by Tracy Letts (who adapted the script). Unfortunately, director John Wells’s hands-off approach puts the story on stilts, thus never really achieving an ebb-and-flow to this conventional blend of drama and comedy.

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Parker Mott

Staff Film Critic
Parker Mott is a film critic and screenwriter based in Toronto, ON. He writes for Scene Creek, Movie Knight, Film Slate Magazine, The Final Take, and now yours truly Next Projection. He intends to purvey thoughtful writings on film that deeply examine the history of the form, and to initiate mindful discussion afterwards. His favourite and most relatable filmmaker is Paul Thomas Anderson. But to declare a best movie? No way, or not at this moment in his life.

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