Rated R. Running time: 2 hours, 1 min.
Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 4; Language 7; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (1-5): 3.5
Insults have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister,[e] you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult[ a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
Woe be to those who belong to or are related to the Weston family! By the light of Jesus’ words above, this family is full of murderers, one insult after another spewing out of their mouths, especially those of dragon lady Violet (Meryl Streep) and older daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts). The occasion for the gathering of the clan is the funeral of the patriarch Beverly (Sam Shepard), a prize-winning poet and teacher who had settled in the small town of Pawhuska Oklahoma. To give those who have not seen this darkest of black comedies an idea of its emotional intensity, I suggest that you imagine what Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? would be like it were the warring couple to have three daughters
The film begins with Beverly interviewing Johnna (Misty Upham), a young Native American woman. She is to cook for them and watch over his pill-popping wife. “My wife takes pills and I drink. That’s the bargain we’ve struck.” Violet, suffering from mouth cancer and almost bald from chemotherapy, staggers into the room, managing to insult both of the others within less than a minute. We must assume that Johnna badly needs a job, because she stays on despite Violet, even intervening later in an incident involving the clan’s granddaughter.
On the hot August morning that Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), the only one of the three daughters who lives close by, arrives to look in on the parents, Beverly is no where to be found. Presumably he has gone on a fishing trip, but it is one from which he will not return alive—by choice. When his suicide is confirmed, word goes out to the two daughters who had fled their strife-torn house for a more peaceful life. Oldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts) arrives from Colorado with her professor husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their 14-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). The pair is in the process of separating, and surly Jean would rather be anywhere but in the rambling house of her nasty tempered grandmother. Youngest daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis) arrives from Florida in a flashy red sports car driven by her latest flame Steve (Dermot Mulroney), a devious wheeler-dealer to whom loyalty is a foreign word. He becomes attracted to Jean, later smoking pot and wanting to share more than just a joint with her, even though she is just 14. It is into this situation that Johnna plunges late one night when the sound of their voices wakes her up.
Violet’s sister Mattie Fae Aiken (Margo Martindale) and husband Charles (Chris Cooper) are on hand to offer their support. Their socially awkward son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), who has just lost his job as a shoe salesman, arrives by bus shortly after the funeral because he forgot to set his alarm clock the night before. His mother berates him relentlessly, while his father tries to ameliorate the situation. Because Mattie Fae is too much like her spiteful sister, the Aikens have been slowly drifting apart.
There are many scenes in which the elders employ their venomous tongues to shame one family member after another. The set piece is the epic family dinner where even the usual kindly Charlie shames his niece Jean because she is a vegetarian, but it is Violet and equally sharp-tongued Barbara who hack away at each other until they are engaged in a wrestling match over Violet’s pills to which she is addicted. As screenwriter (and writer of the original stage play) Tracy Letts’ film unwinds under the direction of John Wells, secrets are revealed and ld wounds reopened, some of which are like those of a Greek tragedy.
Sometimes the humor is a bit subdued, as in the following conversation of the three sisters. Barbara: “Marriage is hard.” Karen: “That’s one thing about mom and dad. You gotta tip your hat to anybody who can stay married that long.” Ivy: “Karen, he killed himself.” This brings to mind the famous exchange between Lady Astor and Winston Churchill: Lady Astor: Winston, “If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea.” Churchill: “Nancy, if I were your husband, I’d drink it.” Ten minutes of screen time with Violet, and you can see why Beverly emulated the British Prime Minister. Another humorous, but less subtle incident is Charles’ awkward mealtime prayer, rambling so much that Violet and then various other members, opens one eye, as if to ascertain whether he is ever going to arrive at the “Amen.”
As the story progressed I kept hoping for some movement toward reconciliation, some moment of grace in a home where words too often are used as sharp weapons to wound another. Pot-smoking Charlie provides one bright moment when he becomes fed up with his wife’s constant shaming of their son and tells her they are leaving. Ordering the younger members to go outside, he tells her:
“I don’t understand this meanness. I look at you and your sister and the way you talk to people and I don’t understand it. I can’t understand why folks can’t be respectful to one another. I don’t think there’s any excuse for it. My family didn’t treat each other that way.”
She responds, “Oh, maybe cause your family didn’t have…”
He cuts her off, “You better not say anything about my family right now, I mean it! We just buried a man I loved very much. And whatever faults he may have had, he was a good, kind, decent man. And to hear you tearing your own son not even a day later dishonors Beverly’s memory. We’ve been married 38 years and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But if you can’t find a generous place in your heart for your own son, we’re not gonna make it to 39!” (Quotes are from Imdb)
The other person of grace in the sordid series of events is Johnna, he outsider dragged into the squalid events because of her live-in job. At the end the family members scatter in all directions: Barbara in anger; Karen in haste, with her relationship to unfaithful Steve in doubt; the Aikens to the probable dissolution of their marriage; would-be lovers Ivy and Little George, doomed to live a life of disappointment. Only Johnna remains with Violet, despite the contemptible remarks the old woman had made about her and her racial heritage.
Can anything save this dysfunctional family, whose family embers do love each other, but who cannot be together more than a couple of minutes before they are criticizing each other? Indeed, have we witnessed the last ever Weston reunion, the members separated forever now by the wounds inflected upon one another? Were I a family counselor, I might use this film as a mirror to hold up to clients whose families are divided by old wounds. Hmm, well maybe not. This is a black comedy in which the blackness is akin to that of a galactic black whole, sucking in all the light around it. Be forewarned by the above, and be sure to see the film, if you elect to go, when you are in an upbeat mood. Only then will you be able to see the humor amidst the tragedy.
This is but part of the review. A set of questions designed to help an individual, or better, a group, explore the many issues raised by the film will be included in the January issue of the journal Visual Parables. Find out how you can subscribe in The Store and gain access not only to this full review, but hundreds of others as well, including film program ideas for the church and civil holidays.