film

It ain’t nobody perfect on this green earth of God’s, preachers nor nobody else. And you can tell people better how terrible sin is if you know from your own personal experience.

– Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (1952)

It is a great tragedy that Southern gothic is dead*. Arguably the most fascinating literary movement in American history, the southern gothic genre was the playground for some of the greatest American authors of the twentieth century, including Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, and of course, Flannery O’Connor. The elements of grotesque, dysfunction, and of god-fearing pariahs in the south illuminated a cultural and social history of the region which was wholly unique and remote. These very elements have become something of parody in the twenty-first century, as these elements are bandied about, devolving into hackneyed tropes and venturing further into absurd horror-comedy (you know, half-naked teenagers on a roadtrip to Texas, passing by abandoned petrol stations and colonial mansions). The emphasis has been strewn towards the shock value of the horrific and grotesque, and away from fundamental social statements about life in the South.

*Well, with one notable exception – Tracy Letts. I would venture that Letts is the modern equivalent of Flannery O’Connor, who is able to make significant statements about the Southern life, while expertly weaving the classical elements of the southern gothic genre. The plays Bug and Killer Joe would not be out of place in O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find, in which aberrant and slovenly misfits satiate in insanity and violence, all on the fringes of ‘decent’ society’. August: Osage County is remarkably the most sedate of Letts’ works, but loses none of the gothic qualities of the genre. Like Bug, it largely takes place in a single location – the Weston mansion, a fortress of drawn curtains and stifling heat in the Oklahoma summer. It creates an atmosphere of intense claustrophobia which, in Bug, fosters a maelstrom of paranoia and blurred lines of fantasy/reality. The claustrophobia in the Weston house, however, is one of confinement and regression – being stuck in the past and simultaneously continuing to harbour secrets and resentments that merely bounce off the confines of the moth-eaten drapes.

In contrast to the perpetual suffocation and darkness of the house, we are shown the seemingly infinite vastness of the Oklahoma landscape: endless hay fields and a looping stretch of road, sheltered by a cruelly bright sky. Unlike the play, we are able to see the world outside of the Weston house, and it is a critical display because the miles of Osage County become characters themselves. While the majority of the characters are chafingly bound to the confines of the house and all it represents (stagnation, repression, obscurity), the tantalisingly open stretch of Osage County road is representing the world out there and ultimately, moving on; Barbara’s departure at the end of the film is beautifully and starkly contrasted with Vi’s ornery and nearly childlike attachment to the darkness of the house, forever chained as she is to the binds of bitterness and the past.

The possibility of ‘theatricality’ in film adaptations is too common a curse, but it is blessedly avoided here because of Letts’ impeccably tight screenplay, making certain that no action and no word is without intention or consequence. Moreover, the irreproachably assembled cast act so naturally as to shed the illusion of theatre, and simply are their characters, all playing on equally elevated ground. Streep, however, is an unassailable titan, gliding from spitting harpy in one instant to pitiable wreck in the next. Does the film err on the side of melodrama? Perhaps, but necessarily so – it is about family after all, and no family is without a spot of drama. While the dysfunction may be turned up to ’11’, the roots of southern gothic are never lost, embodied within the walls of the Weston house. It is an immensely uncomfortable, sometimes humourous, but often sad deconstruction of familial relations. Every family has secrets, and some hold on to them much longer and more desperately than others; not so melodramatic after all, perhaps.

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