With echos of Tennessee Williams (much like Blue Jasmine) and Eugene O’Neill, this play turned movie is a romp through the sewer of the past for a family. Like the roots of the style from which it comes, the past and pain come back to haunt a family brought together by circumstance. How these wounds are healed, exacerbated, or salved is all part of the story that unfolds. While there is some dark humor, it is mostly heavy, hypnotic drama focused on the women of an Oklahoma family during the worst heat of summer.
A lot of the talk about this film has focused on Streep. But the truth is that while she gets to really let loose and have a blast with one heck of a nasty character, it isn’t a great performance. The fault of that is not her preparation or ability, but rather Letts’ script. Streep’s Violet has no through line, no story, she simply “is.” We get some of her background, but it isn’t enough to make her a living, breathing person.
Which is all to say that I think the awards focus is going to be on the other characters, despite the powerhouse of Streep.
If there is any alternative lead, it is another screen powerhouse, Roberts (Mirror Mirror). Her layered and damaged adult returning to the home she distanced herself from, travels through a wonderful range of emotion and action.
On the other hand, Martindale (The Americans), playing Streep’s sister, gets to create a great analog of screen sister’s role, but manages to feel whole and real. She creates a complex woman who continues to surprise up till her last moments on screen.
As the youngest member of this incredible ensemble, Breslin (Ender’s Game) holds her own. Playing a believable 14 year old, with all the maturity, and lack of same, that the age entails. It is a small role, but with some excellent moments.
In the biggest role with the fewest lines, Upham (Frozen River) provides an important touch-point of the outside world. She is both invisible and unforgettable as part of the story. And, frankly, likely to be overlooked during awards time.
Despite the female-centric plot, there are solid male performances as well. As the patriarch, Shepard (Mud) does a whole heck of a lot with very little in the way of dialogue. Cooper (The Company You Keep) and Mulroney (Stoker) provide great color and character as well, though neither is particularly unique.
The biggest surprise for me was the nearly unrecognizable Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness) and McGregor (Perfect Sense). Both men deliver great performances as very different characters than I’ve seen them do before. For their pure chameleon capability, both men should get nods.
Director, Wells (Mildred Pierce) handles the shift from stage to screen reasonably well, and wrangles a balanced collection of performances. The moments where that translation fails is mostly due to the dialogue, not the action or camera decisions. There is a subtle difference between stage and screen when it comes to how people speak.
Dialogue is, of course, writer, Letts (Killer Joe) bailiwick. Letts is better known for his acting (Homeland) but has certainly received notice on Broadway for his scripts, and has a wicked eye for humanity. I wish they had decided to film the stage play, perhaps more like Carnage, rather than try to change the format. The language and rhythms of the story are beautifully suited to the character of the stage, but feel a little forced on screen at times where you need to believe the most.
No matter how you slice it, and despite the darkness that the story exudes, the ensemble is worth putting on your list at some point. It isn’t a story that will cling to you like a rancid fog, but the journey to the end isn’t always the most pleasant either. There will be a lot more heard about this film as awards season heats up and as it expands widely as well. If you follow such things, you should see this sooner rather than later.