Watching August: Osage County

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Film and Television

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Last weekend I went to a late night showing of John Well’s August: Osage County mainly in preparation for the Academy Awards. If you don’t click with my rationale there, just tell yourself it’s Bri’s Super Bowl party. Kind of the same thing. I wasn’t particularly drawn to the film outside of a deep admiration of Chris Cooper and Meryl Streep (Adaptation, anyone?). The trailers seemed predictable: dark comedy of family dysfunction under the matriarchal tyranny of the film goddess Meryl Streep. Thus, I rushed over to Goodrich Theatre, scooting in right as the trailers finished, lucky to be solo and grabbing the best seat in the house -just north of center, feet propped against the lone chair in front of me. The film started and I sat for two hours, horrified at what took place for the next two hours and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.

Before I dive into it, I was not familiar with screenwriter and playwright Tracy Lett’s original play to begin with, and so I didn’t have any expectations for adaptation. I am not familiar with any of director John Well’s work (West Wing, Company of Men)and quite honestly, this film revolves so much around character development that his narrative took back burner for me. Nothing screamed “The product of the director’s genius” although it feels unfair to critique something that couldn’t have happened without him. I’ve watched a handful of cinematographer Adriano Goldman’s films (Jane Eyre, Conviction, Sin Nombre) and his work is solid, nice at best. There were a few great shots but I can’t say I will remember them vividly in the future. This Oscar hyped movie truly boils down to one thing: performances. And it’s loaded with good ones.

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If you’re not familiar with the story, it’s set in Oklahoma’s sweltering August heat as the estranged Weston family is forcefully reunited after Bev (Sam Shepard), the alcoholic father, goes missing. The story centers on Bev’s wife, Violet (Meryl Streep), a prescription drug addict suffering from tongue cancer, and her three struggling daughters Barb, Karen, and Ivy (played by Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, and Julian Nicholson). It’s a tragedy more than comedy, that unearths all sorts of Weston secrets, misfortunes, and dysfunction -to be vague to any who plan to see it. Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper play Violet’s sister and brother-in-law and Benedict Cumberbatch as their sweet and awkward son. Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin, and Dermot Mulroney are also grafted into the Weston family.

It’s definitely worth noting this film took an R rating from the MPAA for “language including sexual references, and for drug material”. And it earned every bit of its rating. The film centers entirely around alcohol and drug addiction, not shying away from incest, suicide, marital infidelity, racism, pedophilia, abuse, to name a few. For what the New York Daily news is calling a “cinematic fruitcake: a dense ode to excess” or what Oregon Live praised as, “A darkly comic, emotional tour de force” -how hilarious are both of those quotes- it’s easy to either be disgusted by the story or mesmerized by the performances. Most reviews out there seem to only focus on these two obvious elements. And if film were only made up of good storytelling and convincing performances, then I’m pretty sure I just spent nine dollars to watch a filthy movie with actors who made me forget it was made up, but it’s not. Film, like all art forms and most things in life, is more than just a medium of performance or tale. It’s a friend, an enemy, it’s balm, it’s escape, it’s painful. It’s connection to a character, or a line, or a setting, like those smells that send you back to your childhood or that stranger at the store you can’t help but convince yourself the impossible. And while this film is certainly not for everyone’s eyes, it was something that resonated deeply with me.

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Violet Weston was a woman I knew. A combination of women who were mean and nasty and hurt people I love. She was a woman you wanted to punch her teeth out and hug her neck all at the same time. Michael O’Sullivan for the Washington Post probably says is best:

“Despite some moments of caustic humor, highlighted in the film’s misleading trailer, August: Osage County is in no way a comedy. Neither is it simply interested in wallowing in Violet’s unrelenting ugliness. Two scenes — one in which Violet recalls her own mother’s cruelty to her, and another in which she’s shown dancing, a lonely and unlovable creature who is both a survivor and a perpetrator of abuse — reveal the not-so-subtly hidden message of Letts’s play and film. It’s a message reflected in the several generations of women at the heart of the story, from Violet’s unseen mother to Barbara’s still salvageable adolescent daughter: Monsters aren’t born, but made.”

This story of a monster of a mother stuck to me. I’ve seen other manipulative mother performances but this one felt tailored to me. There were many moments in this depressing tale that reminded me that it’s only by grace that our families don’t fall apart; we’re all closer than we think to crumbling like the Weston family. I told my friend over the phone as I was leaving the theater, “I don’t know that I would recommend it but it was important.” There was nothing redemptive in this story, save one moment where Uncle Charlie threatens to divorce to his wife of 38 years if she doesn’t stop verbally abusing their son, yet it was important. August is made of the kind of real issues our communities deal with daily. I had a strange urge to write Meryl Streep and thank her for her performance. It was hard to watch but I felt less lonely. It was comforting to know other people live in the complexities of people like Violet Weston.

Tim Keller tweeted earlier today that “Marriage is painful and wonderful because it reflects the gospel that is both painful and wonderful at once.” and I couldn’t help but be the one person who missed its point entirely by immediately thinking about the Christian community’s largely hostile relationship with Hollywood. I’ve struggled with this hostility for as long as I remember, a product of the TV Guardian swearing filter, the truly crappy Christian film industry supporter, only to be burned out, and deeply questioning why we shouldn’t resonate the broken parts of life. The scenarios that remain totally unhealed. The characters that reflect real people around us. Keller points out that this Gospel that we live and breathe and die for is both painful and wonderful and necessary. It’s easy to fixate on the wonderful and neglect the painful. Can we be honest enough to listen to the heartbeat of the world around us? Can we unglue ourselves from the walls of our Christian communities, churches, families, friends, to consider why the Gospel is so necessary for all generations for all times? 

It’s easy to pad with the plush, the black and white, the happy ending, the story where the protagonist makes the right choice, the general sentiments this blogger holds. But it’s much harder to watch with discernment and understand the depths of our own depravity enough to blink away a frustrated tear, to allow the fermata to hold over the words “The End”. I think sometimes we judge these ‘secular’ expressions of life because they seem hopeless and we don’t want them to hold true. We operate out of fear but author Brene Brown points out so keenly that our “faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.” Sometimes we have our sweaty, sticky, little kid palms wrapped tightly around the things we want made right, one of the few things we can control, even down to our movies.

August: Osage County was an exercise of prying my little hands away and empathizing deeply in the totally dysfunctional, heart-breaking world we live in. And maybe this isn’t your exercise but perhaps you will be challenged to lower your shield of defense and really hear the stories that so desperately remind us of the promise of Revelation 21:4.

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