With the recent screen release of John Wells’ August: Osage County, based on the Pulitzer-prize winning play by Tracy Letts, I found myself reimagining the geographical aesthetic of Texas where I grew up. Texas and Oklahoma, the regional setting of the film, are not properly considered “the South,” though they are both located below the Mason-Dixon Line. But for a women who grew up in central Texas with headstrong female relatives who dwelled in the country, the film’s verisimilitude was haunting. From the shared social mannerisms to almost identical life events, August: Osage County was like a memory from a past I left long ago.
Common Southern sightings spotted in Wells’ film include pitchers of iced tea; creaky screened-in porches; unbearably hot 108-degree August days; historically tense settler and Native American relations; heated disagreements resolved by drives down a dusty road; the ubiquitous First Baptist Church on the corner; smoking indoors; big hair; large floral motif wallpaper; and store-bought white sugar Bundt cakes in plastic containers. Oh, and the dysfunctional bitterness. The film is colored with such culturally specific details that serve to reanimate memory from the landscape in which the narrative takes place.
In the opening line of the film, Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) muses, “‘Life is very long.’ T.S. Eliot. Not the first person to say it, certainly the not the first person to think it. But he’s given credit for it because he bothered to write it down.” We are not given an immediate account of what has made life so long for Beverly, but we can infer from his demeanor that time has only led to resignation. His marriage to Violet (Meryl Streep) has not been a joyous union or even companionship, but rather coexistence in endurance and resentment.
“The facts are: my wife takes pills and I drink. That’s the bargain we’ve struck, just one paragraph of our marriage contract…cruel covenant. And these facts have over time made burdensome the maintenance of traditional American routine.”
“Traditional” values (and I choose that word intentionally here) of marriage are revealed throughout the film to be less than adequate. Remaining together despite infidelity and secrecy does not lead to renewed commitment and transfiguration. In contrast, unforgivingness and disdain lead to generational brokenness and even suicide.
In “Learning from Looking: Geographic and Other Writing about the American Landscape,” Pierce Lewis writes that
“human landscape is a document wherein cultures unwittingly reveal their present and their past in a kaleidoscopic array of things, patterns, symbols. Before rushing to judge a landscape ugly or beautiful, one should pause and understand how it came to be, and what is says about the people who created it.”
In the film, landscape acts as a kind of theatre, where the space and place define the characters who settled it. It’s a member of the cast, an actor in its own right. As a result, locality and space are integral to the psychology of the characters.
Painters and filmmakers alike have captured psychological narratives within desolate landscapes formed through economic hardship and ethnic genocide. Consider American painter Edward Hopper’s House by the Railroad (1925) or the setting of filmmaker Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978) in the Texas panhandle sharecropping field of 1916. Hopper and Malick both give us glimpses into the history of place that precedes the story of the Weston family by emphasizing the solitary house on the open plains. Understanding the integral role of the landscape to the play, Wells employed the strength of film to contextualize the narrative by shooting on location in a three-story Victorian farmhouse situated on over twenty acres of encompassing emptiness in Osage County. Instead of encountering the open plains as a place of freedom, Wells highlights the texture of space and the unbearably hot weather as suffocating, isolating, and claustrophobic for both the Weston family and us as viewers.
Surveying the land, Barbara Weston (Julia Roberts) looks at her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and exclaims:
“What were these people thinking…the jokers who settled this place? Who was the asshole who saw this flat hot nothing and planted his flag? I mean, we f***ed the Indians for this?”
Even the notion of “going west” to homestead the plains (Horace Greeley’s “Go west, young man!”) is captured in the family’s name: Weston. Not only has the landscape fostered fragmentation among the Weston family, but it has instigated a diaspora among the three daughters before the film even begins. Thus, August: Osage County chronicles a kind of nostos, or “homecoming,” though differing from the Homeric tradition. It is not a tender longing for home that brings everyone back to the homestead. Nevertheless, it is indeed a process of the family remembering their identity as they gather together for the liturgy of death.
The culminating scene of nostos in the film is the congregational dinner following Beverly’s funeral. We witness a confessional scene where the matriarch Violet slices through the semblance of reunion, pointing out every character’s failures. Having self-medicated on downers before the dinner, Violet is unable to filter her scathing assessments. In what could have been a scene of reconciliation, we find each member of the family judged. Not only is reconciliation not possible, but it is also not desired. Far from seeking consolation following her husband’s death, Violet distances herself. The scene’s staging evokes the false pretenses of a Norman Rockwell painting (Freedom from Want, perhaps), yet there is no veneer of appeasement in this dinner conversation. Bitterness and resentment have taken up residence in each of the characters, their poisonous effects resulting in a toxic ecology, one that Beverly Weston had decided to permanently exit.
Phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion discusses the role of time on the human face in his In Excess: Studies of Saturated Phenomena:
Time does not pass, but accumulates…the weight of time accumulates there where my flesh is most openly visible—my face. It is on my face that time prefers to leave its traces…One never sees the same face twice, because time in being accumulated, deforms it as much as it shapes it. Only time alone can draw the face, since it alone sketches it. Time distinguishes the face, because it marks it—in the taking of flesh, in archive. (95)
We might consider this passage as we witness Violet and Beverly’s sole encounter in the film, just after Beverly’s opening remarks on time. Time has certainly chiseled narratives on their worn faces as they stare into each other’s hollowness, bereft of empathy or understanding. Their wrinkles and lines from a life of marriage together show silent desperation. Is the land to blame for this despondency? How has this family become so dehumanized? What cancer has grown from their habits of brokenness?
Neither the play nor the film attempt to resolve these questions, as the family once again departs from Osage County, save for Violet. In the penultimate scene, Violet puts an Eric Clapton record on the turntable as she stumbles around her living room, medicated and delirious. Her sanity cracks as she encounters the reality that her entire family has left, even her husband. “You’re gone, and then you’re gone and then you’re gone!” she sobs as she collapses on the stairs into the arms of her Indian housekeeper Johnna. Johnna rocks her and recites parts from T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” which Beverly had read in the film’s beginning: “This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends.” Eliot’s poem not only bookends the entire narrative, but expresses the film in those very lines: “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.”
Violet’s cathartic whimper situates the script among the greats of American tragedy (such as Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman), revealing a despair with no real resolution. Instead of ending the film with this scene (the stage play’s finale), Wells cuts to Barbara and Bill driving away from the Weston estate sharing an optimistic dialogue unfitting to the tenor of the narrative. Wells was concerned that the moviegoer would have less of a tolerance for the bleak denouement of the staged play. Nevertheless, we are still left with the portrait of a lone, disheveled matriarch haunted by the desolate plains of Osage County. The psychology of place is all the more heightened as we witness the finality of her solitude in the empty farmhouse.
Watching this last scene, I couldn’t help but feel the deepest empathy for Violet as I saw much of my own grandmother’s biography come alive through her character: the steamy land and her unhappy marriage, her struggle with cancer and her feisty antagonism, her addictive painkillers and her eyes that perceived every detail in the Morris family drama. August: Osage County allowed me to imagine the depths of her struggle through the medium of film and witness her crisis of both despair and resignation. Perhaps my condolence towards Violet Weston was a kind of posthumous reconciliation with my grandmother. Unfortunately for Wells’ film, we are given no such hope that any kind of restored relationship is even possible.