Wednesday, February 12, 2014

E is for Emotional Violence (A Film Review)

Last week, I saw the movie August: Osage County, and I haven't been able to stop thinking about it. I'm going to talk about why, and I'll do my best not to spoil it for anyone who wants to check it out.

This one took me by surprise. Based on the advertising, I expected the film to be somewhat of a quirky family comedy. And in some ways, I suppose it is. But it's also dark, emotionally brutal, and revealing. And it hit me very close to home. A lot closer than I expected.

The film--based on a play written by Tracy Letts, who also wrote the screenplay--is about a family that gathers together when their patriarch (Sam Shepard) disappears. He soon turns up dead, and the concerned gathering turns into a funeral.

Meryl Streep plays Violet, the family matriarch, a proud, foul-mouthed woman dying of cancer. She plays a sort of person who you can imagine was once vivacious and optimistic about life, but whose dissatisfaction has ground her down over time and who has allowed her illness to be the excuse she uses to let her festering resentments bubble to the surface. She's a master of emotional violence, and uses it to put down her loved ones almost constantly.

We can see the toll its taken on her relationship with her three daughters. Barbara (Julia Roberts) has a similar mean streak that she wields bluntly at her increasingly-estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and surgically against her vegetarian daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Karen (Juliette Lewis) is the one who has fled the home, but is flighty and unable to manage her life successfully; she arrives with her latest sleazy boyfriend in tow (Dermot Mulroney) and talks of a life plan that no one takes seriously. And finally Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the youngest, has never left home, unhappily accepting her role as her mother's caregiver and growing increasingly restless. The three daughters have self-esteem that's been ground away and is now rapidly eroding, but are tragically repeating the cycle of emotional abuse; even as victims, they've internalized this idea that being torn down and wounded is actually affection.

That's what you learn when you're raised by someone who tears you down; you mistake it for affection, and it carries over into your other relationships, and without even knowing it, you're repeating the pattern, treating someone cruelly and thinking it's not a big deal or that you're only taking the time to do it because that person means something to you. And it takes you a long time--if you ever do--to realize just how messed up that sounds. You realize that you learned how to be a bully. And if you're lucky, you realize it before it's too late.

Julia Roberts' character reminds me so much of my Mom in this movie. My Mom has that same streak of cruelty. I inherited it from her, and it's only in the last couple of years that I've realized it and forced myself to stop mistaking being good at insulting people for being witty. And I'm very good at insulting people. Horribly good, because I usually figure out pretty quickly exactly what to bring up that will hurt a person the most. That's something I'm not proud of. But I learned it from my mean Mom. And she learned it from her mean Mom, who treated her the same way. Meryl Streep in this movie is so much my Grandma, putting people down and making them ashamed of their perceived flaws and ripping into them in an almost casual way; I've even heard my Grandma say what Violet says in the film's big funeral dinner scene: "I'm just telling the truth." People who say that are usually only saying that because the truth hurts the most, and people who deal in preemptive emotional warfare take their shots unexpectedly and early, so that when other people react, they can claim they're the ones being bullied and silenced.

There's a devastating scene that Meryl Streep plays with perfect, understated quiet, where Violet recounts an act of very, very calculated emotional savagery that her own mother committed against her, with the terrible resignation of someone who has never gotten over it but has forced themselves repeatedly to try and accept that they have. And you see the key, of course, is that the abuser was once the abused, and merely came to be an abuser because they were raised by one. That's the tragedy of the cycle of abuse. No one's a monster; they just learned to do monstrous things. And they will often cling to their resentments and their abusive behavior because they have nothing else to make them feel anchored in the world. There are a lot of lonely, bitter people in this world, wondering why their children never call or visit, and they don't always understand that it's because no one wants to return to the scene of their violent emotional traumas, because they don't always recognize that that's what they were. They were just telling the truth. For your own good.

This story seems very cathartic for Letts--I don't want to speculate about his family or upbringing, but the characters are so real, he must have some kind of experience with people like this. What really adds emotional depth is that none of the characters are entirely sympathetic, but none of them are entirely unforgivable, either. Violet has a sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale), who does the same to her only child, a son (Benedict Cumberbatch), putting him down for being a failure. I didn't even know Cumberbatch was in this movie, and he's excellent in it, playing... well, playing me. A grown man who, because of his family and the way he's been constantly cut down, has almost no faith in himself and believes he's really the loser people have told him he is. He's sad and fearful, uncomfortable even around his own family, and very low functioning. His father (Chris Cooper) is very supportive and forgiving, but he's also just as capable of engaging in the same behavior as his wife. I found that to be a very true-to-life dichotomy for the character; we like him for standing up for his son and defending him to his wife, but we also remember the way he rather brutally belittles Jean's vegetarian beliefs at the table.

This is one of the few films I've ever seen that reminded me so much of my own family. I appreciated the way it attempted to deal with meanness, cruelty and abuse in a meaningful, revealing way. Like I said, I haven't been able to stop thinking about it, and I hope I can learn from it and reflect more fully on why I am the way I am and how not to be so cruel and mean. I've taken a lot of steps over the years--it's part of the reason why I don't do the Throwdown anymore, because I became so weary of dealing in that level of negativity--but I have a lot farther to go. I've seen what this abuse cycle has done to people as both victims and victimizers. I'm not going to commit that kind of emotional violence against people--up to and especially including myself.

ABC Wednesday


Roger Owen Green said...

Oh, man, I'd almost written off this film, but now I want to see it.


photowannabe said...

This sounds like a most painful film to watch.
Thanks for the intimate look into difficult lives, yours included.
More power to you.

Ann said...

I want to see it before the Oscars come out!! Great synopsis.