The film August: Osage County opens in the home of Violet and Beverly Weston. Their decades-long marriage has been an attempt to blend their divergent natures; Beverly’s is poetic, Violet’s is mean. She wreaks emotional violence against anyone who gets too close to her frayed center. Beverly navigates her tumultuous waters by gripping the gunwales. As the film starts, he is bearing the tempest that occurs when Violet learns he has hired “an Indian” (the tragically and recently deceased Misty Upham) to help care for her through her developing stages of oral cancer. Having provided for Violet in this way, Beverly launches a boat on the lake where he is later discovered to have drowned. His family considers it a suicide. His death brings their three daughters back home, as well as Violet’s sister, Mattie Fae; her husband, Charles; and their son, a grown man they call Little Charles.
We see the effect the marriage and Violet’s nature has had on each of the daughters. They are unhappy, resentful, and floundering well into adulthood. We suspect there may be similarities between Barbara and her mom as we see her relate to family members, including her husband Bill (from whom she is separated) and their 14-year-old daughter, Jean. The messes amass as each generation finds they cannot separate themselves from the sins of their fathers.
Philip Larkin’s poem, “This Be The Verse,” talks about the dark side of family heritage and brilliantly complements August:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn By fools in old-style hats and coats, Who half the time were soppy-stern And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a coastal shelf. Get out as early as you can, And don’t have any kids yourself.
The poem and film share the same black humor and subtlety; they’re not as bleak as they seem. Larkin’s use of Robert Louis Stevenson’s line “this be the verse” from his epitaph is humorous. It asks us to imagine coming upon a headstone with his poem as the inscription, and contrasting it with Stevenson’s tones of contentment and repose.
In August, the family attends Beverly’s funeral and then gathers at home for a meal. Violet and Barbara brawl on the floor as a result of their dinner conversation. The weekend catches Barbara in the convergence of opposing forces: her mother’s will against her own, her own against her husband’s and daughter’s. This is a maelstrom we can relate to. If we suffer the battered heart and ravished soul that Donne expresses, isn’t it often from the emotional dynamics of relationship? And isn’t family one of God’s most effective tools for shaping character? Through the turmoil, Barbara realizes that her nature is wound like a double helix to her mother’s. This revelation leads her to a nuanced turning point where she begins to see a house not built by hands.