REVIEW: August: Osage County

22 01 2014

August OsageI’m a firm believer that there are some source texts that are absolutely impossible to botch, provided they keep the main narrative intact.  Tracy Letts’ play “August: Osage County” belongs in such a category.

Many in the theatrical community already assert that it will be in the American dramatic canon along with works by Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Tony Kushner.  Letts provides some of the most gripping familial tensions I’ve ever read, and it’s chock full of meaty characters in an ensemble for the ages.

John Wells’ film adaptation of “August: Osage County” brings that story to a larger audience than likely could ever be reached on one stage.  Moreover, the cast he assembles is like the kind of “one night only” extravaganza that fans can only dream about.  I’ve never seen the show live, so I can’t really speak to its theatrical power.

Letts’ words did, however, jump off the page and paint such a vivid picture in my mind that I feel as if I did.  While the film does a decent job translating the action to the realm of cinema, there still feels like a bit of raw intensity evaporated in the transfer.

That’s not to say, though, that Wells doesn’t effectively harness the power of the screen to bring a different dimension to Letts’ opus of intergenerational discord.  On a stage, you can’t key off the subtleties in an actor’s facial movements, which is one of his most clever editing tricks in “August: Osage County.”  Some theorists have labeled film a fascist form because it has the power to direct your attention towards only what it considers relevant, but the way Wells chooses to organize these massive scenes is actually quite freeing.  It ensures we do not miss crucial reactions that serve to define the arcs of the characters.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 21, 2011)

21 01 2011

Melissa Leo seems to have emerged as the frontrunner for Best Supporting Actress for her work in “The Fighter.”  I wasn’t a huge fan, but if you want to see her in a performance that does deserve an Oscar, look no further than her turn in 2008’s “Frozen River,” which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.  My pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” the ultra-indie tale of how far a single mother will go to provide for her family will knock you out with its raw power.

Living along the New York-Canada border, Ray Eddy (Leo) is scrapping to get by, pulling coins out of furniture to pay the bills.  Her job at the Yankee Dollar hardly pays enough to feed her kids, and she’s often forced to resort to feeding them popcorn and Tang for multiple meals.  But she has hope enough to put down a sizable deposit for a bigger trailer, something which would substantially improve their quality of life.

However, Ray can’t pay what’s left on the trailer since a promotion at her job has yet to materialize and her husband has gone missing with some crucial cash.  Thanks to a chance encounter, she meets Lila (Misty Upham), a Mohawk Indian involved in smuggling foreigners across the border through reservation lands.  Ray has a car with a trunk big enough to fit three people, and she begins making regular runs for the money.

The movie would be just any other woman-on-the-edge movie if it weren’t for Leo’s incredible performance. She makes Ray’s desperation practically tangible with her raw and real approach to the character.  The powerhouse performance that put her on the map is still her best work, two years and potentially an Oscar win later.