How big a deal was the Monday afternoon screening of August: Osage County? So big that Toronto International Film Festival Artistic Director Cameron Bailey was on hand to personally introduce director John Wells, who was flanked by producer (and Oscar guru) Harvey Weinstein. Wells informed the crowd that he’d finished his final mix on the film mere days before this screening. He joked that he hoped the entire film made it across the border to Canada. Based on what we saw, enough of it arrived to deliver a lasting impression.
This will not be a full review. There’s too much to chew on in August: Osage County to hash out between screenings at a hectic festival setting. The movie, by design, wants to challenge us with uncomfortable truths hurled by family members who no longer bother to pretend that they love each other. It jabs, jabs, jabs, and swings the occasional roundhouse. When it connects – and it often connects – you feel it in your gut. Possibly because you have been told something similar by a trusted relative. Or possibly because you’ve thought about uttering the horrible phrases that come out of these characters’ mouths in the heat of “battle.”
This is Tracy Letts country (Killer Joe, Bug), so we shouldn’t be too shocked by the language, the claustrophobia, the hurtful realizations or the harsh truths. Here, the playwright and screenwriter adapts his own hefty Pulitzer Prize-winning production about an Oklahoman clan returning to the home of cancer-stricken mother, Violet (Meryl Streep), when her husband (Sam Shepard) disappears under unusual circumstances. The returning family members ladle on the star power. Violet’s daughters include Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis and Julianne Nicholson (who deserves a lot of attention for her understated role). Their significant others bring Ewan McGregor and Dermot Mulroney into the fold. Other supporting parts are filled by Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin … seriously, the guy in charge of changing names on the marquee at your neighborhood theater will be exhausted.
Uniformly, the cast is fantastic, with Streep and Roberts serving as the expected scene-stealers. Streep, per usual, commands our attention. But it’s so much more than “here goes Streep again.” Every time she approaches a new role, she resembles a painter staring at a blank canvas, and she fills it with her inspiration. August is no different. Roberts, though, matches her dominant co-star punch for punch (literally, at times). And while director John Wells does a serviceable job with Letts trimmed-down material (the play runs 3+ hours), he deserves the most credit for finding a way to give every member of his full ensemble a chance to develop their characters beyond the easy caricature.
August obviously is based on a stage play, and the movie – while beautiful and brutal in spots – can fall into the rhythms of stage-driven monologues. But every actor realizes this is an all-star ensemble, and when Wells gives them a turn in the spotlight, they all rise to the occasion. They rise to the occasion, having been handed fine-tuned dialogue that drips with scorn and attitude off each performer’s tongue. But as they lay bare all their complaints, all their fears, the cast of August: Osage County forms a family … and it’s in those portrayals where I believe several of us will look and recognize ourselves, or people that we know and say that we love.
August: Osage County is the real deal. It’s a movie we’ll revisit often during the lengthy Oscar season. The Weinstein Company plans to open it in theaters on Dec. 25.
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