The summer of our discontent

August: Osage County is gritty and great

The Wednesday night theatre crowd had no idea what to expect with August: Osage County . It’s being marketed as a family dramedy starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts and in the loosest sense that’s true. The two superstars square off and crack a few jokes. But after the first C-word was dropped those with more delicate sensibilities quickly got up and left.

That’s too bad because August is fantastic another winning film from playwright Tracy Letts ( Bug Killer Joe ) about nasty people and the awful hilarious things they do to one another. Unlike those films which were fuelled by drugs and violence Letts abandons the sleazier southern crime vibe for something statelier and gothic like a profane play by Eugene O’Neill. I can’t think of another modern playwright that can make incest so honest heartbreaking and tragic.

Osage County is a tiny sun-baked place in rural Oklahoma far removed from any semblance of civilization or good manners. (As one character puts it we’re not talking about the Midwest but the Plains.) Life isn’t easy out on the Plains — it takes a hearty half-crazy soul to survive. After a brief prologue of sorts the film opens with family patriarch Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) running away and committing suicide. His family lost and distraught returns home to bury him and reconnect. They also need to deal with the newly widowed Violet (Meryl Streep) who is fighting mouth cancer and nursing a serious drug habit pumping her body full of assorted pills that send her off into mean crazy foul-mouthed flights of fancy.

It’s clear that she’s done a number on the mental health of her three children. Barbara (Julia Roberts) is dealing with an impending divorce after exposing her husband Bill’s (Ewan McGregor) philandering ways; the shy and timid Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is carrying on a secret romance with her cousin Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch); and the bubbly Karen (Juliette Lewis) is getting ready to settle with Steve (Dermot Mulroney) a greasy thrice-married lady-killer.

A few other family members appear as well including Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper). Ancient grudges and secrets come spilling out with each person either nursing wounds or stabbing another in the back. It culminates in a mid-film scene set during a post-funeral dinner that’s both hilarious and deeply sad stretching the limits of grotesque believability. It’s white trash poetry a mix of the genteel and the profane that’s neither condescending nor forgiving.

The cast is uniformly great. Streep comes across like the Wicked Witch of the West by way of Carson McCullers threading her incoherent mutterings with vicious monologues full of venom and cruelty. It stays just this side of misguided Tennessee Williams-inspired lunacy. Roberts is the most welcome and surprising playing a middle-aged woman worn down by the drudgeries of family and unrelieved expectations. She’s pulled a Matthew McConaughey here; Roberts owns this role enough that you’ll almost forget this is the same person responsible for flicks like Larry Crowne and Runaway Bride . She has the chops for this kind of work; hopefully she has an opportunity to do more.

Letts adapted his stage play for the film and while it retains its more rigid dramatic structure director John Wells does a fine job opening it up for the screen. The vast and endless Oklahoma plains keep the family prisoner and only the camera could give them the proper size and scope. In many scenes Wells sets the characters at the edge of the frame or hidden behind screen doors and gates like specters in a haunted house.

August is the kind of work that often escapes an audience so here’s hoping people check it out. It’s one of the best films of 2013 sneaking in right at the very end.