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August: Osage County

August: Osage County

The only way to stop her is to kill her. But then you become the new her.

dir: John Wells

Some families… some families are so toxic that they shouldn’t exist.

Some characters are so toxic that they’ll either make you cringe in horror, or you’ll feel compelled to give them awards, to make them stay away.

Perhaps that is, in part, the theory here, with August: Osage County. Rarely have I seen an ensemble cast in such desperate need of awards, all of them swinging for the bleachers, as an American abusing a sports metaphor would aver. Almost every single one of them gets their special scene that should have For Your Consideration underneath them as they’re intoning their cumbersome, purple dialogue.

It's overstuffed with good actors, and they all want their chance, but perhaps there's too many of them, and too many of those awards-grubbing scenes for this to be anything but an actor's showcase.

Still, it's no surprise that Meryl Streep was nominated, playing the monstrous matriarch of this toxic clan. So, sure, she 'acts' the most, flexing her acting muscles in every single scene, but that's what you hire Meryl to do. At this stage of her career, it's almost impossible for her to not receive Oscars just for showing up. If she went to the opening of a carwash and cut the ribbon, she'd probably earn herself an Oscar or a BAFTA or a Gold Logie just for saying, "It is an honour to be here."

August: Osage County. is not based on a book by William Faulkner. It's not based on a lot of other things as well, but it's specifically not by Faulkner despite virtually being a Faulkner novel's worth of 'Southern family in decline, alcoholism, drug abuse, incest and family-abundant misery'. It is instead based on a play by Tracey Letts, he of Bug and Killer Joe fame, if fame is in fact the word I'm looking for. Perhaps 'infamy' is a closer approximate to what I mean.

This flick doesn't have the sickening sleaziness and lunacy of his previous efforts, but instead amps up the real-world misery of a family so toxic they should all be tied up in a hessian bag and thrown in a river like unwanted kittens.

Perhaps that's a bit harsh. August: Osage County transpires presumably during the month of August, which is very hot, and in Osage County, which is in Oklahoma. A man with the wonderful name of Beverly (Sam Shephard) talks to a much younger woman (Misty Upham) whom he is hiring for a specific purpose. That specific purpose is not a lap dance, or anything more salacious. She is to be cook, maid and presumably nurse to Beverly's pill-popping monster of a wife called Violet (Streep). But also, she needs to listen to a man lovingly complaining about his wife, rambling on about TS Eliot and the unbearable length of one's life, and saying the only words we'll ever hear him say.

So Johnna has been warned about the wife. And what a monster she truly is. I mean, she insists on calling the new hire, whose strange name is Johnna, an 'Indian'. How politically incorrect is that? She's like worse than 50 Hitlers!

She has mouth cancer, and a real commitment to mixing up her pills in order to reach that perfect pitch of awfulness that has driven almost everyone else away.

When Beverly goes missing, Violet puts the call out to her adult children, who reluctantly make the trek back to the ancestral homestead. There's Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), who doesn't have to go far since she's never been able to leave her parents' gravitational pull before, Karen (Juliette Lewis) who is a flighty flibbertigibbet about to marry a sleazy scumbag (Dermott Mulroney), and Barbara (Julia Roberts), the eldest, favourite child.

You know, you really know that Julia Roberts wants another awards statue. You know how you can tell? She either deliberately let her roots grow out, or they dyed her hair to make it seem quite accurately that she's the age she is.

How radical! How career-defining and brave! I mean, this is the equivalent of starving yourself down to a skeleton like McConaughey, or putting on a few extra pounds and bad teeth like 'brave' Charlize Theron in Monster. And plus she swears a lot, which should be a virtual guarantee that she'll get Best Supporting Actress.

Try as she might, she's not going to out-act Meryl, is she? I mean, no-one can out-act Meryl. And in the scenes where they both act so much it hurts the screen, the screen almost seems to bulge out at us under the power of their acting. it's still Meryl who's the most memorable, though Julia does show she's come a long way towards portraying actual characters since her days walking the streets of Rodeo Drive as an allegedly Pretty Woman.

Barbara hates her mother with a white hot passion, and Violet seems to hate not only Barbara but everyone around her as well. She gets her initial overacting scene "on drugs" at the beginning, but then, at a certain formal lunch, she gets a remarkable long sequence attacking everyone at the table for the crime of existing. Streep is in lethal form here, with so many people cowering around her, but only a few being willing to step up and thwart her ambition.

Most prominent of which is Roberts, making her Barbara be a match for Violet in many uncomfortable ways. On one level you feel glad that someone can see Violet for the monster she is, and the need to take her down. On another level, you're meant to be asking yourself what it would take to be able to match such a monster.

That scene, that lunch scene, is terrifying. The way in which she rounds upon her victims, knowing where to stick the knife and just how many kilos of salt to force into the wound, ranks up there with any of the other evil Streep has perpetrated on screen. She may have played one of modern history's greatest humourless monsters in the form of Margaret Thatcher in Iron Lady, but this Violet would have compelled the Argentineans to sink their own navy during the Falklands War just to get away from her maternal criticism.

These kinds of stories, these family stories, are meant to be the ones that we all universally "enjoy" because most of us know what it's like to come from a family. Many of us know what it's like to have unresolved issues, tensions, regrets, disappointments and all that bullshit, and so we watch stories of a similar nature, seeing elements of our own experience reflected back to us.

August: Osage County seems to be saying "if you have a family like this, either stay away from all of them forever, or just kill yourselves already". This script, this story, finds new ways to make miserable people even more miserable, and seems to be structured to leave us with little more than a sour feeling in our gullets after we've swallowed all this bile, but with some feeling that escape is possible if we abandon all notions of familial obligation.

As for explanations for why people are the way they are, well, let's admit that the story here doesn't aim for easy answers, the kinds of glib excuses lesser entertainments thrive on. Violet is a cruel sadist, but it's not the drugs alone, and her mother was a cruel cold woman, but that doesn't explain her own viciousness now. Barbara has perhaps a similar propensity for viciousness, but she was the favoured child, beloved especially by her poet father. Surely others have more cause, and yet they're much nicer, though no less mixed up people (the other two sisters).

There is a stand-in for us in the story, in the form of Violet's brother-in-law (Chris Cooper), a man to whom the abuse is just intolerable. His wife, Violet's sister (the always great Margot Martindale), also has her capacity for cruelty, and it leads us to his standout scene, where he expresses what we're feeling in the audience, in that we can't believe how cruel some of these people can be either, and for no good reason.

The worst cruelty is reserved by the film for a couple of 'young' people who thought they could escape the misery that surrounds them, only to find out that a strange quirk of fate will snatch even that meagre happiness from them.

Oh, it's almost unbelievably nasty, but I guess it's probably more honest in terms of what it's like in truly cruel and toxic families. As a film, it's not a particularly enjoyable experience, but it's a memorable one. Everyone's at the top of their (over)acting game, and it makes for an impactful (if hollowing) experience overall.

My favourite line, and this sealed the deal as far as I was concerned, is where Violet yells at Barbara while she’s being melodramatic: "Oh don't go all Carson McCullers on me." That made me laugh a whole bunch, mostly because Carson McCullers is one of my favourite writers of all time, but equally because a few of the characters (Little Charles and Ivy especially) could have been lifted directly out of some of her novels.

Avoid Osage County in August or any other month. Avoid monsters like Violet. Avoid being a monster to your families. But don't avoid August: Osage County if you want to see good actors being awful and you have a strong, worthy constitution.

7 ways in which poet Phillip Larkin was right out of 10

"I'm so glad one of my girls stayed close to home. In my day, family stuck together." - yes, and murder-suicide pacts are traditional family values as well - August: Osage County

"Man hands on misery to Man
It deepens like a coastal shelf
Get out early as you can,
and don't have kids yourself - Philip Larkin