‘Osage County’ reveals the potency of personal power

“August: Osage County” (2013). Cast: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Chris Cooper, Sam Shepard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Nicholson, Misty Upham. Director: John Wells. Screenplay: Tracy Letts. Play: Tracy Letts, August: Osage County. Web site. Trailer.

Whenever we see someone rise to greatness, we’re inspired by the impressive personal power that they wield. But managing such power can be a dual-edged sword as anyone can attest who has witnessed its unleashing in the manifestation of terrible atrocities. The challenges associated with this issue can become apparent in a variety of arenas, too, including everything from the world geopolitical stage to the everyday theater of family relations. That point gets driven home with riveting clarity in the dark new comedy-drama, “August: Osage County.”

The Weston family of rural Osage County, Oklahoma harbors a plethora of secrets, and most of those issues have evaded revelation or resolution for a very long time. Everyone has had a hand in this, and their respective challenges have taken a variety of forms. It’s quite a potent concoction indeed.

For instance, family patriarch Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard), an award-winning poet, has spent years escaping into an alcohol-induced reality to cope with the challenges of his daily life. His biggest task is dealing with his perpetually embittered, foul-mouthed wife Violet (Meryl Streep), a pill-popping shrew who spews venomous tongue lashings at every turn and who has recently been diagnosed with, of all things, mouth cancer. Beverly faces these conditions mostly alone, too, much of his family having unapologetically abandoned him. His daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) has fled to Denver with her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin), while his daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis) has sought refuge in Miami in the arms of a seemingly endless string of irresponsible, uncaring suitors. Only his daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has stayed behind, biding her time leading a life of quiet desperation, stalwartly attempting to deal with her dysfunctional parents and patiently struggling to contain the growing frustration simmering inside her.

However, the Westons’ unresolved issues can’t be put off forever, so, as fate would have it, an opportunity to address them finally arises when a family tragedy strikes. With everyone returning to the family homestead, their long-deferred challenges get brought to the surface for attention. As this process unfolds, the personal demons of the Weston tribe become apparent, as do those of several extended family members, including Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper) and their son Charles, Jr. (Benedict Cumberbatch). Even a few “witnesses” come along for the ride, such as Karen’s flashy, pot-smoking fiancé Steve (Dermot Mulroney) and the family’s recently hired soft-spoken Native American caregiver, Johnna (Misty Upham). And so, with the stage set, the Westons prepare to tackle questions that have long gone unanswered, a catharsis that takes in the full range of emotions, all of which are wrapped up in blankets of high drama, biting humor and profound revelation.

To divulge more about the specifics of the film’s narrative would reveal too much. However, suffice it to say that the individual events associated with this intense family gathering – played out through group meals, one-on-one encounters and clandestine meetings – all serve to expose and address the characters’ outstanding challenges. How it all unfolds makes it possible for each of them to examine these questions, assess possible solutions and adopt measures for moving forward in their lives. But, perhaps even more importantly, the experience provides them an opportunity to look within themselves, to see what drives them. Such self-appraisals help them to clarify their thoughts, beliefs and intents, the means by which they create their individual realities, for better or worse.

In addressing the foregoing, “August: Osage County” offers an excellent look at the tremendous power tied up in our personal beliefs, particularly the role they play in manifesting the world around us through the conscious creation process. The film shows what that power is capable of creating, not to mention the almost-unfathomable degree of impact it can have when it’s unleashed without restraint. In that regard, the Westons routinely demonstrate – without reservation – the extremes to which we can go when we let loose with our beliefs, pointedly illustrating the consequences that can arise from such an unrestrained use of power.

Given the realities these characters materialize, one can’t help but wonder why they would manifest what they do. Their lives, for the most part, appear pretty horrible. But, considering that all potential probabilities are equally viable, these existences are just as valid as any other, no matter how repulsive they may seem to outsiders. If nothing else, these sorts of experiences could be chalked up to significant life lessons, albeit patently unpleasant ones, but lessons that we must each go through as part of the learning curve of our soul’s evolution.

Having negative experiences like this does have its value, though, for they ultimately help us to appreciate life’s finer qualities. And, on some level, the Westons realize this, too, as each of them actively seeks to escape their situations in their own ways. Some, like Barbara and Karen, have fled their circumstances – literally – as a means to get away from them. Other family members draw upon alternate “solutions,” like Violet, who seeks refuge in drug-induced stupors, and Beverly, who crawls inside a bottle and buries himself in his books, among other means, to flee. Their awareness of these solutions (and their attendant degree of effectiveness) isn’t always clear to them, however, since the characters are generally more preoccupied with manifesting expedient escapes at any cost than with addressing the underlying intents that created their difficulties in the first place. If they were to place more of their attention on the root causes of their troubles (i.e., the faulty beliefs creating them), they might have more success eliminating their problems and producing existences that are more fulfilling from the outset.

Facing those underlying causes is crucial to understanding why we experience what we do. In essence, the reality around us mirrors what we believe, even if we don’t fully understand why we hold onto a particular set of manifesting beliefs. Violet’s illness, for example, is a direct reflection of the verbal onslaughts she regularly hurls at others. And, as a result of such behavior (and the beliefs behind it), she’s now getting back what she’s been putting out for years, her disease manifesting as a painfully ironic metaphor – and an affliction that could very well kill her. Circumstances like this thus help to point out the inherent responsibility that goes with conscious creation, particularly when it comes to understanding our beliefs, for, as the foregoing example illustrates, they’ll assuredly come back to us like a metaphysical boomerang.

How we respond to our creations is equally important as what we manifest, and this becomes painfully apparent during the Weston family gathering. Violet, for instance, explains her embittered behavior as a response to the brutal experiences of her childhood. But is such a reaction the only one available to her? After all, Mattie Fae grew up under comparable conditions as her sister, and she chose a different (or at least less volatile) response to those circumstances as she moved forward in life. By continuing to embrace bitterness, Violet only perpetuates what she grew up with, making an escape from her past (and all that entailed) virtually impossible.

A similarly ironic response can be seen in Barbara’s efforts to foster a meaningful relationship with her mother. She’s long seen herself as being vastly different from Violet, eschewing the worst of her mother’s temperament, prejudices and behavior. At the same time, she’s attempted to thwart those negative traits by developing an amicable connection with her mom. Yet Barbara’s conciliatory overtures have been shot down at virtually every turn, prompting her own embittered reactions. And so, in an effort to reach out to Violet, she unwittingly becomes just like her, a disillusioning experience for mother and daughter alike – a similarity that neither of them can see until others point it out to them. It’s a hard realization for Barbara and Violet, one that provides them both with considerable food for thought about what they seek to create and why, a lesson we should all take to heart.

“August: Osage County” packs quite an emotional punch, both in its gut-wrenching pathos and scathing dark humor. It features excellent performances across the board, especially by Streep, Roberts, Lewis and Martindale. The writing, based on screenwriter Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play, is generally crisp, even if its presentation sometimes comes across as a little stagy (something that almost inevitably comes with the territory when a play is translated from the stage to the screen). Moreover, some have questioned the plausibility of the level of dysfunction on display here, but I’m sure most of us can probably think of families we know or have heard of, either from media reports or personal experience, that are just as out of kilter as the Westons (hopefully we’re not part of them ourselves).

The film has received its share of accolades, though it has yet to garner any major awards. Streep and Roberts have both earned acting nominations in the Golden Globe, Critics Choice, Screen Actors Guild and Academy Award competitions, and the picture’s performing ensemble earned comparable honors in the Critics Choice and Screen Actors Guild contests. The movie also received a Critics Choice Award nomination for best adapted screenplay.

As author Marianne Williamson wrote in her book A Return to Love, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” If that’s true (and I believe it is), one could contend that the Westons should be trembling in their boots. It’s obvious that they know how to tap into their personal power but that they’re seriously in need of learning how to harness it, to manage its potency with tempered discipline. We can all learn from their experiences, for, if we don’t, we’re just as likely to suffer the consequences of what can happen when we let our power – and ourselves – get out of control.

Copyright © 2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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