From the moment Meryl Streep appears as Violet, wigless, slurring and ornery, it’s clear we’re in for a bumpy ride. Violet is addicted both to painkillers and hurtful remarks; she’s a monstrous mum who pauses in her self-pitying monologues only long enough to castigate those around her. Her once-famous poet husband Beverly (Sam Shepherd) copes by drinking to excess, and after hiring a Native American housemaid (Misty Upham) in the film’s opening scene he promptly disappears. Violet is left to summon to her sprawling, stifling, sepulchral Oklahoma mansion her three damaged offspring: bitter Barb (Julia Roberts), whose marriage to Bill (Ewan McGregor) is failing; deluded Karen (Juliette Lewis), whose latest fiancé (Dermot Mulroney) is a creep and a phoney; and mousy, spinsterish Ivy (Julianne Nicholson). Violet’s sister Mattie Fay (Margo Martindale) also turns up bearing casserole and a long-suffering husband, Charlie (Chris Cooper). Reckonings, recriminations and all-out catfights ensue.
The family fireworks of Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County make for electrifying theatre. For the big screen, Letts has shortened his Pulitzer Prize-winning play by about an hour, which makes for a manageable running time but simplifies his characters to archetypes. Personages such as fragile Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) don’t get the fleshing out they deserve and the play's deeper resonance as a microcosm of American life fails to register. Still, as a story of dysfunctionality begetting dyfunctionality, it packs a blackly funny punch, and Streep’s performance is a thing to behold: a venomous arachnid at the centre of a web of familial cruelty.