(2013) Drama (Weinstein) Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Sam Shepard, Julianne Nicholson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Misty Upham, Will Coffey, Newell Alexander, Jerry Stahl, Dale Dye, Ivan Allen, Arlin Miller, J. Alan Davidson, Maria Swindell Gus. Directed by John Wells
In the dusty heat of Oklahoma in the dog days of August, tempers can flare and people can be driven to the despair of unrelenting heat and no air-conditioning. Then again, a family can duplicate those same conditions – unrelenting heat and no saving grace of air-conditioning.
Violet Weston (Streep) has cancer of the mouth that causes her intense burning pain. She pops pills like others pop Tic Tacs. She is a feisty curmudgeon who speaks her mind, even if what she has to say is unpleasant – which it often is. There are hints of racism in her and enough self-righteous judgmental pronouncements to fill up several evangelical Christian sermons.
When her husband Beverly (Shepard) disappears, her kids come running home which in at least two cases, is a place they really don’t want to come back to. Karen (Lewis) has flitted from man to man and seems to have found one that she can stick with, slick Steve Huberbrecht (Mulroney) who is going to marry her in a few months and take her on the honeymoon she always wanted – Belize. Barbara (Roberts) is shrill, angry and frustrated; her husband Bill (McGregor) is separated and carrying on with a younger woman and her 14-year-old daughter Jean (Breslin) is withdrawing into a world of pain, pissed off at both her parents but particularly her mom.
Only Ivy (Nicholson) stayed near home and she is worn to the bone, ready to take off with her secret fella to New York City and away from Violet’s grasp. Also coming to the house are Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Martindale) and Mattie Fae’s husband Charlie (Cooper). Mattie Fae is on the surface the adoring aunt but she treats her own son, Little Charles (Cumberbatch) like an absolute nincompoop which he just might be; he certainly is a jumpy sort. Taking care of Violet is Johnna (Upham), a Native American who watches the chaos around her without comment.
Into this volatile environment comes the revelations of family secrets that will either draw this dysfunctional group closer together or break them apart forever. The specter of abuse will rear its ugly head and the skeletons in the closet will do their ugly heads before it’s all over.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Tracy Letts (who has written Killer Joe among others), the movie gets the big screen treatment by director John Wells (known primarily for his small screen work on series like E.R. and The West Wing). Wells does an excellent job of setting the time and place – the acrid, soul-burning prairie heat of Oklahoma, the beautiful but run-down Victorian home of Beverly and Violet and the sunset vistas. He also manages to capture the claustrophobia that can happen at an awkward family dinner.
There are some tremendous performances going on here, by Roberts and Streep in particular (both of which garnered Oscar nominations) although some may find them over-the-top. These are two women, mother and daughter, who are more alike than either would care to admit and both are at the end of their ropes. The disappearance of Beverly has left them with no buffer and with neither Ivy nor Karen willing to get in between them their confrontation becomes inevitable. Both characters aren’t very likable – probably Chris Cooper’s Charlie is the only one who is – and neither one is likely to inspire you to share a meal with them, especially if fish is on the menu.
They both have a great deal repressed inside them and it boils over, leading to a family crisis of dramatic proportions. Drug abuse is part of the issue but there is also a good deal of “truth telling” which is often the refuge of those who wish to be cruel and get away with it which is pretty much where both Barbara and Violet are at. The interesting thing is that this movie really isn’t about Violet so much although Streep’s performance puts her front and center, but the movie is about Barbara – that’s one of the reasons that the controversial closing scene focuses on Barbara. Da Queen, for her part, thought that last scene unnecessary. I for one thought it brought better closure than the original ending which features Johnna consoling Violet on a staircase.
Those aren’t the only fine performances. Cooper gets some wonderful scenes in, as well as Nicholson whose drawn and beaten down demeanor belies the inner strength she possesses. Martindale’s performance is just the opposite; this wonderful character actress plays a woman who is tough and loving on the outside but wounded terribly on the inside. I also thought Cumberbatch was extraordinary as the wimpy, indecisive and overly sensitive son of Charlie and Mattie Fae. The rest of the performances were pretty much adequate.
Some of the scenes are uncomfortable, particularly as family secrets from way back begin to emerge from necessity. Violet, sometimes as malevolent as a cobra but often as vulnerable as a prairie dog caught in the gaze of a predator, rules the roost with an eye that misses nothing.
I know that not everyone shares my regard for the movie. It has often been criticized for having over-the-top performances and for violating the spirit of the original play which was a dark comedy. There are still elements of that here but this is definitely a drama. As for the performances, I think they are also by necessity over-the-top – the people being portrayed here are in the middle of a stressful family crisis who are dealing with repressed emotions that boil over. Of course they’re going to get loud. People get loud when they melt down.
At the end of the day this is the kind of movie that can be hard to watch, particularly if your own family has issues. For me the dynamics of the Weston clan are certainly far from normal but at the same time there was a certain amount of resonance. There is love but this is a family disintegrating and one wonders just how much it was the alcoholic Beverly that held them together. This is at turns fascinating and repulsive, like watching a snake swallow its prey. You learn something of nature in watching it but in doing so you learn something of yourself.
REASONS TO GO: Scintillating performances. Exceedingly well-written.
REASONS TO STAY: About as dysfunctional a family as you’re ever likely to meet. Occasionally uncomfortable.
FAMILY VALUES: A ton of swearing including sexual references, some mature situations and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Abigail Breslin had a temperature of 103 degrees when she auditioned for the role of Jean Fordham.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/26/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ordinary People
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Lone Survivor