August: Osage County
Directed by John Wells
Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Abigail Breslin, Ewan McGregor, Julianne Nicholson, Juliet Lewis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Cooper
August: Osage County tells the story of an impromptu family reunion under undesirable circumstances. Violet Weston’s (Meryl Streep) husband has gone missing prompting the reunion of her three adult daughters (Julia Roberts, Julianne Nicholson, Juliet Lewis). Violet is a verbally abusive drug addict, and the main question of the film is what will happen to her and her family now that her husband has gone and all three daughters expressing desires to leave her behind to pursue lives of their own.
I admit that I had a very difficult time becoming attached to this film. I suspect being male has something to do with it (more on that in a bit). For me, the film plays like the worst caricature of every horrible family reunion. Most of us have sat through some iteration of the film’s best moment, the dinner scene, where we politely keep our mouth shut as some relative begins to spout off offensive remarks. But unlike my own experience of such dinners, there’s no relief, nothing positive, no side smirk to a sibling. Even the move to distract from Violet’s vitriol is bound to mocking the youngest family member for her vegetarianism. Dinner is simply violence with a side of violence.
Absent anything positive in the connection between the people who have gathered, there never struck me as any particular reason why any one of them should stick around in the first place. Violet is so nasty and portrayed as always having been as such, that I’m not sure why anyone cares about her well-being at all. I certainly didn’t. Mattie Fae’s (Margo Martindale) vitriol for her son is such that even she’s baffled by it. More than this, when the three sisters interact alone, there’s no sense that they care about each other either. Ivy even identifies this saying that genetics alone doesn’t make them family, and she doesn’t expect to ever see either of them again. Everyone is so ruptured from each other that I remained disconnected from them. Consequently I didn’t understand their motivations and never really cared what happened.
This I suppose points back to me. Blood alone is not enough to incite interest. Again, Violet is so nasty that I can’t imagine caring about her outcome regardless of our relationship. I suspect there’s something gendered in this and have been told as such. Women are more likely to have been raised to care for others, to put family first, while men are encouraged to forge their own way in the world. In service of this point, I’d point to Carol Gilligan’s influential work, In A Different Voice. However even Gilligan recognizes that self-concern has to be a basic framework for other-concern. It would have been nice to have some shared stories about how Violet cared for her daughters even as she emotionally abused them. Some reason to know why the three sisters care at all.
So Gilligan’s work makes for an interesting point of departure for analyzing this film. Of special interest to me, however, is Violet’s insistence that through her most abusive and hurtful pronouncements that she is just a “truth-teller.” The question of truth is an interesting one. Even if we grant that Violet is in fact telling the truth when she calls her daughters spoiled and lazy, when she outs her daughter’s fiancé as a multiple divorcee, or even if she is telling the truth when she criticizes the way women age, those truths always appear in contexts of purpose. No one just spouts “truth” as though they were machines. Truth is always deployed in service of some purpose. Violet wants us to ask whether what she says is true, because this misdirects us from her own horrible persona. We should instead ask why she would speak that truth at that particular time?
This is an important distinction to make when dealing with people. Truth-telling is valued. Telling hard truths is often needed. But we need to ask what our purpose is when we speak them. Are we making better? Are we tearing down? People hide racism, sexism, homophobia behind this mantra of “I’m just telling the truth.” Violet hides her abuse of her family behind it. But being false isn’t what makes generalities and stereotypes hurtful, and a statement being true doesn’t make you any less of a jerk.
We see this most clearly when Barbara (Julia Roberts) says to her mother, “You’re a drug addict. How’s that for truth?” we can see in her sarcastic question that Barbara seems more intent on being hurtful than helpful. Later, recounting the scene, Barbara apologizes and her mother says, “No, I was spoiling for a fight, and you gave me one.” They were after each other, no two-ways about it. What matters is the motivation, not whether the statement was true.
I suppose on some level that August: Osage County tries to make a broader point about truth and relationship, but I’m not sure what it is. Violet is certainly not “just a truth teller,” but when Karen (Juliet Lewis) later says, “It’s not cut and dried. It lives where everything lives, somewhere in the middle,” the context is such that even if you were prone to think that at the beginning, you’re not anymore. Things have certainly become messy by that point in the film, but there’s little doubt about what needs to happen. These people need to get away from each other.
All in all, the acting is brilliant. Julia Roberts is fantastic as a woman struggling with how much she is like her horrible mother. The interactions between Mattie Fae and Charlie (Chris Cooper) exhibit the complexity of marriage in minimal movements. Meryl Streep’s portrayal on the other hand is a bit too much for the screen. For this reason I suspect that it makes a better play than a film if only because live theater has the ability to deploy caricatures without seeming obvious. Again, Violet is so horrible that magnifying that horribleness onto the big screen makes her children’s concern for her unbelievable. And while brilliant in moments, (the dinner scene, Juliet Lewis’ departure, Ivy’s departure) without a clear reason to know why they all were trying so hard to get along, the film failed to pull me in completely.