One is reluctant in a public review to say just how deeply one loathed August: Osage County.
Better to write an indifferent dismissal. Or to treat the film’s slide from prime award season real estate to January dumping ground as requiring no further comment. “Hate” and “loathe” are strong, emotional words, and to use them is, in some ways, to invite attention to be turned from the art work to the critic. Is not an intense reaction of any sort evidence of some craftsmanship or effectiveness? Did the movie hit a little too close to home? Did the male critic not like the female centered plot? (For what it’s worth, I went home are rewatched Persuasion to clear the bitter taste from my imaginative palette.)
Of Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, and Julianne Nicholson, I have no complaints. The script is the source from whence my loathing flows. Perhaps, if I thought deeply enough, I could find male characters this unlikable populating a film that was worth watching simply to see the actors practice their craft. Glengarry Glen Ross? The Squid & The Whale? Guilty as charged for giving both good reviews.
Then again, both those films seemed to be aware that their characters were unappealing. Mamet’s play, and the film made from it more or less expected us to loathe everyone in it. But it’s a work film, and those are okay to despise. August: Osage County is about family, and Americans have a deep, perverse, idolatrous, ridiculous pride in their familial dysfunctions. Our domestic dramas are like a Monty Python skit played straight: Luxury! What I wouldn’t have given for years of emotional abuse from a pill-popping, borderline personality! Insert how your childhood was worse here.
Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) is positively archetypal when it comes to sociopath matriarchs who live near enough the edge of self-realization to brainwash her family into thinking that just enough patience could one day pull her out of the darkness and into the light. Or perhaps it will earn the right for one well timed rebuke. Such is the way of the long suffering in the face of the habitually, maliciously, and brokenly bitter. They think each blow absorbed is a drop in a bucket that can be redeemed when the bucket is filled; they dream that somehow the delusional will hear from and respond to them at the key moment (which never seems to come) in honor of being the last loved one to stick with them.
As I read the last paragraph I see that I’ve moved from talking about Violet to talking about her daughters, most notably Beverly (Julia Roberts). Sure, Meryl Streep gives a fearless and ferocious performance, but Violet isn’t all that interesting. Narcissists seldom are. Films about them can be, but only to the extent they are about those around them learning to walk away. The pinnacle of wisdom for the crazy mother genre, for my money, was delivered by the sympathetic police officer in Anywhere But Here who told Ann August (Natalie Portman) not to leave (her mother) until she was ready to not go back.
Beverly has left, but she does go back, and I could never quite shake the feeling that it was not because of a family tragedy nor a sense of duty but because on some deep, emotional co-dependent level, she wanted to. Her mother’s abuse defines her because she lets it. It makes her miserable, but it is her misery. (Tolstoy allusion intended, though any inferred comparison is passionately disavowed.) Revisiting it confirms to her–and us–that she really is more put upon than everyone else. Maybe she is. But…and I say this as a member of a generation that loves to blame its parents for every ill in the world…at a certain point your family ceases to be the reason for your misery and becomes your excuse for resigning yourself to it.
Had the film been about Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) it might have been more palatable, since she is the only one who really tries to be happy, who believes that happiness is possible. And the (screen)play punishes her dearly for her naivete, suggesting that family curses truly are inescapable. As such, they are the presented as the ultimate power in the universe.
Are they? I might have entertained that notion once, and I can see how anyone raised on a diet of twentieth-century American narrative art (films and plays) might think so. Truth is there are plenty of stories, real and fictional, about people who walk away before toxic families scar their souls. Or about people who find pools of self worth from whence they are able to love those who cannot reciprocate. That, too, is life. I’m not saying that those stories are more true than August: Osage County. They are certainly not more common. Which is why I cling to them so dearly, for my own soul’s sake.
And why I flee the misanthropic narratives of (self and other-) hate and bitterness just as quickly as I can.