Set in rural Oklahoma, August Osage County is a 2013 comedy- drama film about a violent dysfunctional family that comes together for the funeral of the family patriarch, Beverly Weston. Written by Tracy Letts and directed by John Wells, it was adapted from the Broadway play, and received critical acclaim from many due to the gut wrenching realistic performance delivered by the stellar cast. Through the film we are brought face to face with the toxicity, anger and resentment that threaten to break a family apart despite being tied together through blood and cultural relations. Letts discusses how familial relationships can have an impact on an individual’s emotional and mental well being and vice versa, via her strong characters; each of which is given a prominent role and is well fleshed out. At the same time she challenges what it means to be a part of a family, and we may view the movie’s ideas of relatedness and association in a family through the lenses provided by David Schneider and Janet Cartsen in their respective papers, What is Kinship all About? And The Substance of Kinship and the Heat of the Hearth.
Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), is a alcoholic poet who lives in a large three storey building in desolate Pawhuska with his drug addict contentious bitter wife, Violet (Meryl Streep). Violet is severely depressed and falls deeper into depression and angst when Bev goes missing. Upon his disappearance she calls up her sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), who arrives with her husband Charles Aiken (Chris Cooper). Violet’s youngest daughter, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) is the only one who lives close by to take care of her mother. Often branded as plain and not pretty enough, the girl is quiet and suffers from low self esteem, little does everyone know that she has a secret. The eldest daughter, Barbara (Julia Roberts) arrives from Colorado with her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their 14-year-old sullen cigarette-smoking daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) in town. After a few days it is found that Bev has committed suicide and the family prepares for his funeral. The youngest and prettiest daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis) arrives with her latest lover – Steve (Dermot Mulroney) – a sleazy businessman from Florida- . The final family member is Mattie Fae and Charles’ son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), a shy boy who plays the role of an awkward Forrest Gump in this film.
The family sits down to have to dinner after the funeral and Violet is on a mean streak of ‘truth telling’, in which she picks on each one of her family members. The dinner proves to a disastrous affair as Barbara confronts her mother about her drug addiction and confiscates all her mother’s pills. The dinner concludes and in the evening the three sisters meet in the outhouse to chat. Here it is revealed that Ivy is in love with Little Charles and she plans to run away to New York as she no longer wants to be the one responsible for their vicious mother. She cannot have children as she had a hysterectomy the previous year so there are no chances of any genetic diseases. The following morning Ivy and Little Charles share a tender moment and Mattie Fae berates him, her husband then yells at her and threatens to leave her if she continues with her behaviour. Mattie Fae hesitantly reveals to Barbara (who was eavesdropping), that Little Charles and Ivy are not cousins but half siblings from an affair that she had with Beverly when she was younger.
That evening, Jean and Steve are playfully chatting when the caretaker walks on them and finds that Steve was trying to molest her. Barbara is horrified and slaps Jean and this makes Bill leave for Colorado with their daughter, putting and end to their marriage once and for all. Later Ivy tries to tell her mother about Little Charles and when she finds that they are siblings she too leaves, promising never to return. Upon her departure, Violet confesses to have contacted Bev before he died as she wanted to retrieve her money from their safety deposit box- aghast and disrought (as she was the favorite daughter), Barbara too leaves and Violet is left alone with the caretaker.
This film sees a variety of instances wherein these ideas of kinship are either reaffirmed or challenged by relationship or breaking of ritual and norm.
In American culture, says Schneider, the family is often seen as an institution with its rules and hierarchies, much like how a church or nation state functions. It is the commonality of experience and blood ties that dictates kinship as conglomerative normal (what should be) versus the pure system of kinship (the transition between what is and what should be). We see this play out when the family comes together for dinner on the first evening- there is a ritual sanctity involved due to the death of a loved one. All the men are expected to wear their dinner coats, everyone is supposed to wear black, all members say grace together thus binding them by religion. At the same time, Violet disintegrates many of her relationships and takes them apart with her bitter comments on the failings of Barbara’s marriage and the inability of Karen to keep one man. There is a clash between the old and the new because the younger generation refuses to follow what is expected of them. Though they practiced certain ritual traditions at the dinner table, they are extremely disconnected from one another.
This also reveals itself when the three sisters meet to talk at the outhouse. Here we may observe two things. Firstly, how taking care of the elderly is a task that no one wants to take- who takes care of the hearth and keeps the fires burning once the children have grown up and left? Secondly, we see how the sisters relate to one another- Karen is the one who feels most ‘related’ despite not having met her sisters in years. Ivy, the girl who has stayed closest to home feels the most disconnected from her family and there is an urge to cut away from the rules laid out by the institution. It leads us to question whether family is only cultural in the contemporary world. Have we become so disconnected from our blood kin?
“I can’t perpetuate these myths of family or sisterhood any more. We’re all just people, some of us accidentally connected by genetics, a random selection of cells. Nothing more.”
At the same time Ivy is held back by the rules of her blood. To her, the term ‘cousin’ is only a classificatory term; but as soon as she finds out that Little Charles is her brother, it becomes a descriptive term and she is forced to confront that she is not only cultural obliged to the family, but bound by blood. There is the incest taboo that she is faced with, but despite that she denies it and decides to push against what is expected of her. This is another example of how there is a challenging of the norm of family while it breaks down in its dysfunction. Similarly, when Barbara confiscates Violet’s drugs, she seems to take the upper hand and go against the blood hierarchies and expectations set up by the idea of family.
It is not only the new generation that has broken the rules of blood ties and culture, but the old generation as well. We may observe this through the affair Mattie Fae has with Beverly- she too is a traitor to her own sister, her blood kin. At the same time she tries to make up for it by keeping Little Charles with her, but hating him. Her husband on the other hand is very acceptive of what has happened, and despite being very traditional, he proves to love Little Charles like a son and raises him in the same hearth. It can be said that this is an indication of how culture makes place for forgiveness when socio-biological rules are broken.
We are also faced with the title August: Osage County and its significance- the movie takes place in the sweltering heat of August, where tempers and temperaments are volatile in the dark claustrophobic heat. The county on which they live, is a family home with fond childhood memories.
As Cartsen says:
“Houses are strongly associated with children….The unity of a house, is also conceived in terms of siblingship”
The relationships between the three siblings comes together at the house after many years and ends there as well as they all go on their different parts. At different parts of the film biological relationships are treaded over and cultural formalities are given importance; and vice versa, thus breaking down the family and its importance to its members. Ofcourse one may blame the disintegration of the family on the way Violet treats everyone and puts them through agonising fear and pain and makes them miserable, as she herself suffers from mouth cancer and drug addiction. But it is the choices made by individuals as well that comments on the dark isolation and abuse one feels within kinship. Nevertheless Letts has written a piece that hist very close to home for many and the dysfunction was not only emotionally and psychologically wracking but also an interesting piece to study sociologically.