If you drew a line straight up through the middle of a map of the United States, across the fruited plain, that line would come within 100 miles of the shooting locales of two American films currently contending for Oscars in multiple categories: Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, filmed in and outside a number of the state’s eastern plains towns; and August: Osage County, filmed largely in a big old house in Osage County on the border of Oklahoma and Kansas.
Both films are family sagas featuring cantankerous elders: Nebraska’s Woody, played by Bruce Dern, is an addled old alcoholic, and Violet, played by Meryl Streep, is a pill-popping widowed matriarch in August:Osage County. Both films offer a supporting cast of family members with their own, relatively ordinary human problems ranging from divorce to financial instability, not to mention the difficulty of caring for aging parents. Both are semi-comedies focused on the dark side of the American family and its dreams of home. Nebraska was directed by Alexander Payne, native of Omaha; August: Osage County was adapted for the screen by playwright Tracy Letts, an Oklahoma native who won the Pulitzer Prize, a Tony and numerous other awards for his original stage play.
That’s pretty much where the similarities end. Nebraska is a road film, set largely beneath a massive Midwestern sky, shot in ice-frosted black and white along long, empty highways. August: Osage County is mostly a set piece, shot as if to induce claustrophobia inside the cluttered, shade-drawn rooms of the Weston family home, its walls pulsing from the combustion of pent-up emotion trapped beneath its worn roof. Nebraska runs cold and Osage County runs hot.
Both films draw distinct and distinctly mixed audience reactions. At the screening of August: Osage County I attended, not one small giggle escaped from one audience member’s mouth throughout this so-called comedy. When I saw Nebraska in the middle of a month spent visiting my 86-year old mother, my sister and I laughed until tears ran down our faces. But weeks later, standing in line for another movie, when the subject of Nebraska came up the man in front of me groaned loudly, declaring it the most depressing movie he’d ever seen.
Neither film is for the fainthearted. Both draw from the shadows and corners of places we’d rather forget we’ve been.
So why did I love Nebraska and come away lukewarm from August: Osage County? Both films boast strong performances from big name stars and supporting actors alike. Dern’s stern, tight-lipped Woody is played with steely perfection, and Streep’s Violet nearly knocks the camera over in every scene with her vitriolic force. Of the assortment of sons, daughters, wives, aunts and uncles populating these films, I preferred Woody’s sweet and ineffective son David, played with admirable reserve and heart by Will Forte, to any of the Osage County girls, Julia Roberts included, though I appreciated the moments in the film when her character Barbara began to recognize her resemblance to her bitch of a mother. For my money, half of Streep’s and Roberts’ screen time could happily have been forfeited for more time with Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper as Aunt Mattie Fae and Uncle Charlie, one of those couples in every family who stay together forever though God only knows how, given the cavernous differences in their personalities.
Both screenwriters drew from personal experience to create the characters in these films. Bob Nelson, who wrote Nebraska, drew from memories of trips with his family to the Cornhusker state as a child. His screenplay captures those small-town characters’ reticence well, only occasionally slipping into stereotypes. For August: Osage County, Letts drew the character of Violet from memories of his grandmother, an angry woman who became addicted to pills following the real-life suicide of her husband in a lake when the playwright was ten years old. The inherent nature of those two very different kinds of memories color the films — one homespun, simple and straightforward; the other homespun too but colored by the kinds of eavesdropped conversations that haunt a child’s dreams.
What I really loved about Nebraska, though, was the film’s juxtaposition of the landscape and the people who populate it. There is a tender melancholy in those shots of soft rises in the highway, in the decaying streets of fictional Hawthorne and that magnificent open sky. That straight line up through the middle of America points to this place where these towns are gradually disappearing, leaving a smattering of sturdy people behind. In Osage County, the line leads away from home, as far away from home as a sane person can possibly get.