There's a weird sort of pleasure involved in watching large ensemble casts snarl and brawl amongst themselves. It's a Freddy versus Jason sort of pleasure and this film features a dozen of them. Their hands may not be made of knives but their mouths are and they're primed for two hours of feudin', fussin' and fightin', bolstered by an ad campaign that isn't ready for you to think of it in any other way. Of its posters, the best one is taken up completely by a glorious shot of Julia Roberts scowling, straddling a screaming Meryl Streep on a floor, employing a move she probably picked up from old Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling videos.
And yet it comes with a pedigree. It's from Tracy Letts, the actor/playwright who gave the world Bug and Killer Joe, both of which were turned into nerve-shreddingly damaged films by director William Friedkin. The original stage version of this big screen adaptation earned him the Pulitzer Prize because Letts understands and articulates, with stinging accuracy, the ways that people can be insane, cruel, driven and sadistic (see Bug and Killer Joe for the proof). And with August, he turns his attention to the most psyche-wrecking social unit there is: your immediate family.
When cancer-stricken Violet (Meryl Streep) and her alcoholic husband Beverly (Sam Shepard) fight for what is probably the millionth time, Beverly disappears. Violet, in turn, calls the entire family (Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis, Margo Martindale, Ewan Macgregor, Dermot Mulroney, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Julianne Nicholson) back to their Oklahoma home for what becomes Beverly's funeral after he turns up dead (drowning, self-delivered). From that moment on the blackened husk of a family shell shreds itself via shouting, fighting, seething resentment, drunkenness, sleaziness, unwitting incest and emotional evisceration.
Director John Wells has made a lot of mainstream television and it shows. His use of space is constricted and we're invited to get up inside the nostrils of too many actors before the final credits roll. There's more laceration than laughter. But those actors are, still, very happy to be here, cut loose to devour scenery and each other. And they leave permanent stains -- Streep and Roberts are a perversely appealing pair of monsters, a mother and daughter intent on destroying one another, with Roberts especially displaying an inner rage she doesn't often get a chance to live with on screen.
Flannery O Connor once wrote -- and I'm paraphrasing -- that people who aren't from the Southern half of the United States see all of it as grotesque, unless what's being presented is actually grotesque, at which point it's called realistic. And that's Letts' real talent, presenting unhappiness as it really resides in human beings, binding it together with the comedy that exists in all misery and teaching you to count your blessings you're not related to anyone you're watching. And if you are, well, then have a good, bitter laugh.