A lifetime of bitterness poisons the spirit of an Oklahoma family’s matriarch and she in turn contaminates the lives of her children with vitriol and meanness. August: Osage County is a dark film about a seriously dysfunctional family, but it somehow still manages to be very funny as well.

The film begins with quotes from TS Eliot’s The Hollow Men, a poem about broken souls, and the story follows that theme throughout its telling. August: Osage County is written by Tracy Letts (Killer Joe), who also wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same title, and you can tell that this Oklahoma born author has an ingrained connection with the people of southern plains.

Despite an all-star cast this is a relatively small movie that takes place in maybe a half-dozen locations, but it is mostly set in the Weston family farmhouse of Osage County, Oklahoma, where and aging father, Beverly (Sam Shepard), and mother, Violet (Meryl Streep), have grown increasing estranged from each other and have escaped into alcohol and prescription drugs to ease the pain of being together.

August: Osage CountyWhen Beverly goes missing the Weston’s daughters travel home to help their distraught mother, and when he is found drowned in a local lake the whole family shows up to mourn his passing. But the drug-addicted Violet uses the post-funeral dinner to spill the truths of how she feels about her kin, determined to make them all share in her pain.

The excellent ensemble cast of this film includes: Julia Roberts as Barbara Weston, who is struggling in her relationship with her alienated teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) and with her troubled marriage to Bill (Ewan McGregor); Julianne Nicholson as Ivy Weston, the spinsterish daughter who has remained in Osage County to look after her parents, but who longs to be far away from them; Juliette Lewis as Karen Weston, the free-spirited daughter who is so desperate for love that she continually hooks up with lowlifes like the pot-smoking and womanizing Steve (Dermot Mulroney); and Margo Martindale, who plays Violet’s sister, Mattie, who constantly belittles her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper) and her son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Directed by John Wells (The Company Men), it is such a pleasure to watch the wonderful actors in this film, even though many of their words make for an uncomfortable experience. Meryl Streep, of course, kills it in her portrayal of Violet, one of the cruelest characters I’ve ever seen on screen; but somehow Streep still manages to make you feel sorry for this woman – barely.

August: Osage CountyRoberts is also very good, if you can get past the plastic surgery she’s had done to her face. Every time she was on screen I was distracted, asking myself, ‘Why would such a pretty woman do that to herself?’ It’s very sad, but in the context of the film I guess it works for her character (although I don’t think she had the work done just so she could play this part.)

Also worthy of special mention is Benedict Cumberbatch, who has been in everything from 12 Years a Slave to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (also see The Fifth Estate, and Star Trek Into Darkness) this year. He does an awesome job here playing against type as the insecure and clumsy son of Violet’s sister. It was odd hearing him with an American accent, but he pulls it off beautifully. (On a geeky side note, with McGregor and Cumberbatch both in this movie, this may be as close as we ever get to seeing Obi Wan Kenobi and Khan Noonien Singh in the same film – in case you were waiting for that.)

August: Osage County is a fantastic film, but it’s also quite a downer, and like the TS Elliot poem that it leads off with, the movie ends with a depressing whimper.

Grade: 8.5/10

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