With a heavy concoction of verbal abuse, relatives attacking one another, suicide, drug addiction, cancer, racism, infidelity between family members, secret paternity, scenes with molestation, a backdrop of incest and a sprinkling of institutional corruption- this film has it all: everything in the headlines, everything America cries over, aside from gun violence, which is, thankfully absent from the plot. Barbara Weston (Julia Roberts) and Violet Weston (Meryl Streep) are absolutely the most stunning daughter-mother duo of the year, in all the most amazingly abominable ways: it’s fantastic. It’s very much worth seeing the paid play their ugliest roles ever (YES- Violet Weston is more hellish than Margaret Thatcher in a screenplay way, only), thereby taking their personal successes to unimaginable and terribly admirable heights.
With the shame of divorce and an addiction to pain pills, the Weston mother and daughter battle each other for control as mirrors of one another. Violet is the poisonous matriarch of the family, who subsists on pain pills to dull the pain of -of all the illnesses for the sharp tongued- mouth cancer. She degrades her family one character at a time, in a drugged haze, using what she knows to be true of their personal struggles against them for no reason other than that her mother left her that kind of legacy- maternal abuse. Barbara considers herself the sane one in the family. She was the oldest daughter and the favorite. She’s the tough one: self-righteous and bullish to the point of being abusive in her own way, though she cares about each of her relatives deeply. Without a redeeming quality, both mother and daughter are left very much alone, though together, in the final scene of the film, until Barbara breaks out of the darkness, leaving her mother -her double- behind.
Alongside Streep and Roberts is the equally fearless actress Julianne Nicholson, who plays Ivy Weston, the timid middle sister who cares for mother Violet before the disappearance and death of her father, Beverly. In spite of her isolating circumstances, she managed to find the love of her life. She falls for her cousin, Charles (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), who consoles her as she secretly undergoes a hysterectomy to battle a diagnosis of cervical cancer. She hides her trials from her absent sisters and her abusive mother, and struggles to find a place and time to break the news of her greatest joy to the rest of her family. “Please don’t be mean to me, please, Mom” she pleads at the post-funeral dinner where verbal knives are hurled relentlessly from relative to relative- divorce, secret romances, personal failure, historic abuses, racial slurs, blame on top of blame- Ivy exists as the most emotionally vulnerable member in a family of black sheep. By breaking free, however broken-hearted, she breaks her part of the vicious cycle in the family circle.
According to the reviews of the original play (which was also written by the screenwriter Tracy Letts) the missing links involve the only two characters who exist outside the sphere of the family’s drama. The sheriff -Barbara’s high school boyfriend- and Johnna Monevata (Misty Upham), the Cheyenne caretaker who is hired by the patriarch just before he kills himself in the first act. These characters, particularly Johnna, act as mostly silent, but sympathetic witnesses throughout the film. The sheriff, Deon Gilbeau (Will Coffey), is the bearer of bad news when he arrives one night to tell the family that Mr. Weston (Sam Shepard) has drowned in the lake. In the play, the sheriff consoles Barbara Weston after her husband (portrayed softly by Ewan McGregor) leaves her for good. Barbara’s hardness, modeled after her mother’s mirror image, softens in that scene, if only for a moment, but we don’t get to see this edge wear down in the film.
The only sacrificial act of heroism in the entire film is when Johnna saves Barbara’s daughter (Abigail Breslin) from being molested by her sister Karen’s (played faintly by Juliette Lewis) boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney). Further on, Johnna remains in the midst of fury, holding the weight of the family tragedy when Violet is left all but totally alone in the final scene, but they cut her leading line, the one that ends the stage version of the story, in which she consoles Violet while quoting T.S. Eliot, saying “This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends.” She exposes an abusive man to no credit, but all she really gets is the sense of a dignified air, the dangerous yet dignified use of a shovel, and a line about having cooked catfish. She cleans up after everyone only to be called on for silence in her final moment on screen. In a more starry twist, Roberts closes the film, telling her mother she’s “the strongest” with an air of “goodbye forever, you hopelessly evil junkie” before driving off down the dusty country road in her pick-up truck, clad in flannel pajamas.