This is the film to make everyone who thinks they have a dysfunctional feel really normal. This is the mother of dysfunctional family films. For pure film nastiness nothing this powerful has been seen since “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?” It opens with the voice of Sam Shepherd: “Life is very long. I drink and my wife takes pills. That’s the bargain we struck.” This is by way of explaining the situation to Johnna (Misty Upham), the woman he is hiring to take care of his his unwell wife.
The fact that Tracy Letts wrote the screenplay based on his 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning play surely accounts for the fact that the transfer to film has been so succesfull. That and the fact of the all star ensemble cast headed by Meryl Streep as the matriarch, Sam Shepherd as Bev, her husband whose mysterious disappearance in the very begining of the film provides the impetous for the gatherhing of the Weston family in the Oklahmoa plains. Her three daughers, Ivy (Julianne Nicholds), the meek one who has never left Osage County, Barbara (Julia Roberts), unhappily married to a pompous college professor (Ewan McGregor) and their cranky and sulky 14 year old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) and Karen( Juliette Lewis) with her dubious slick fiancee Steve (Dermot Mulroney). To add to the grim picture, Violet has just had chemotherapy for mouth cancer (an irony given the way she uses her words as lethal weapons). The fractious family is rounded out by Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their emotionallly battered son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch).
There are several scenes which take place at the dining table but not much eating. Most of what is chewed is the scenery. Barbara is clearly the acorn that did not fall from the tree. She is the eldest and the favorite and has almost as much bitterness and spitefulness as her mother. (Give her a few more decades and it seems certain she could reach the same level.) Most of the acerbic go-for-the jugular jousting is verbal between these two but there is one over the top scene when it gets physical and they go at each other like feral cats.
As the circumstances behind Beverly’s disappearance and subsequent death unfold so do a laundry list of family secrets. It is a pretty bleak picture with little redemption. There is nothing which looks like a promising future for anyone in the family except just possibly the two least likely to succeed on account of the fact that they are getting out of Dodge which is what Osage County is for them. Nontheless it is a rivetting piece of dark comedy with plenty of action, deftly directed and acted by a well-cast ensemble and a heartbreaking and mesmerizing performance by Meryl Streep.
Review by Belle McIntyre