Tracy Letts adapts his own prize-winning play into a blistering depiction of one of cinema's most dysfunctional families ever. It's still rather theatrical, throwing a mob of top actors into a room for what feels like a fight to the death, but it's so well written and so beautifully observed by the actors that we can't look away. And of course Meryl Streep walks off with the show.
Everything kicks off when Beverly Weston (Shepard) goes missing, leaving his ruthlessly straight-talking, pill-popping wife Violet (Streep) to assemble the family in their rambling Oklahoma home. They have three equally feisty daughters: Barbara (Roberts) is a tightly wound bundle of anger with an estranged husband (McGregor) and surly teen daughter (Breslin) in tow; Karen (Lewis) is a free-spirited floater with yet another random boyfriend (Mulroney); and Ivy (Nicholson) is fed up with being the dutiful daughter who stayed close to home. Also on hand is Violet's sister Mattie Fae (Martindale), whose husband (Cooper) is the family patriarch now that Beverly is gone, which means their son (Cumberbatch) feels even more useless than normal.
What plot there is centres on skeletons rattling out of closets and relationships imploding spectacularly. The film is a series of brutally intense encounters between people who probably still love each other in vaguely undefined ways and express it through bitter bursts of witty cruelty. Streep has the meatiest role as the imperious Violet, who knows a lot more than she's letting on. And her chief rival is Barbara, played with unnerving intensity by Roberts. The only person we even remotely like is Mattie Fae, and the always-superb Martindale finds all kinds of layers in the character.
Letts' blackly funny script is so packed with pointed observations that director Wells' main job is to get out of the way, making sure the right person is in the centre of the screen so we know where to look. He also nicely reveals each relationship's pungent history, showing how the bitterness flows through generations. And amid the plot's rather scripted twists and turns, the raw truth is the most shocking thing of all. So it's hugely entertaining to just watch these people try to get through dinner. They may loathe each other, but after all is said and done, they're still family.
Run time: 121 mins
In Theaters: Friday 10th January 2014
Box Office USA: $37.7M
Box Office Worldwide: $37.1M
Distributed by: The Weinstein Company
Production compaines: Smokehouse Pictures, Jean Doumanian Productions
Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 64%
Fresh: 114 Rotten: 63
IMDB: 7.3 / 10
Director: John Wells
Screenwriter: Tracy Letts
Starring: Meryl Streep as Violet Weston, Julia Roberts as Barbara Weston, Chris Cooper as Charles Aiken, Ewan McGregor as Bill Fordham, Margo Martindale as Mattie Fae Aiken, Sam Shepard as Beverly Weston, Dermot Mulroney as Steve Huberbrecht, Julianne Nicholson as Ivy Weston, Juliette Lewis as Karen Weston, Abigail Breslin as Jean Fordham, Misty Upham as Johnna Monevata, Benedict Cumberbatch as Little Charles Aiken