"When you eat meat, you eat an animal's fear."
No, that's not a line of dialogue from a horror movie. It's from, of all current prestige films, August: Osage County, the John Wells-directed adaptation of playwright Tracy Letts's stage drama (the screenplay is also penned by Letts).
In its own way, August: Osage County is pseudo-horror, an uncomfortably funny but mostly searing domestic drama in which Meryl Streep, at her most ferocious since The Devil Wears Prada, plays the prescription-drug-addicted matriarch of the Weston family. Plagued by her own personal demons, Violet Weston can't help but make her three daughters—Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and Karen (Juliette Lewis)—as miserable as she is. And as their entire family congregates at Violet's Oklahoma estate following the suicide of her long-suffering husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), Violet extends her reign of domestic terror onto her daughters' significant others and children.
That line about eating meat comes from Barbara's 14-year-old daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin). She's a vegetarian and not interested in sampling the meat on the table at the family's big post-funeral dinner, and her loved ones let her have it. Violet, in particular, starts loudly paraphrasing the old Wendy's fast food commercial slogan "Where's the beef?" into, that's right, "Where's the meat?" Charles, Violet's brother-in-law, makes a joke about how tasty "the fear" is, much to Jean's embarrassment.
August: Osage County's dinner scene descends further into humiliation, rage, and disrespect after that, by the end making Jean's moment under the microscope seem relatively painless. Violet coldly lets her daughters know where all of their daddy's inheritance money is going (hint: It's not going to them); the word "liar" gets thrown around with reckless abandon; one daughter tells Violet that she's ready for her to finally die. Eventually, the verbal attacks give way to a hair-pulling, on-the-ground brawl between Violet and Barbara, the feistiest of her grown-up children.
The whole time I was watching August: Osage County's epic dinner scene, I couldn't stop thinking about another film, one that, on paper, doesn't appear to have much in common with this Christmas season's highbrow Meryl Streep/Julia Roberts collaboration: Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Because, oddly enough, both movies are one and the same in my eyes—one is just more superficially horrific than the other, due to its predilections towards cannibalism, bodies hung on meat hooks, and a large antagonist named Leatherface (Gunnar Hansen).
Two comparisons are right there, on the surface. Firstly, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, August: Osage County is largely set inside an isolated, white, old farmhouse; secondly, at its heart John Wells' film is an examination of an incredibly dysfunctional family, just like Tobe Hooper's, though the latter centers on a family comprised of a skin-wearing hulk with little brain power, a wackjob who cuts himself for fun (Edwin Neal), an unstable patriarch (Jim Siedow), and a corpse-like grandfather who can't even hold a hammer. But those parallels aren't why, while watching August: Osage County, I kept replaying one specific Texas Chainsaw Massacre scene in my head. It goes back to Abigail Breslin's dialogue excerpt:
"When you eat meat, you eat an animal's fear."
Who else could have said that line? Either Edwin Neal's or Jim Siedow's character in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, right as they're treating the film's heavily tortured and traumatized "final girl," Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) to their own kind of discomforting family dinner. Yes, the scariest, most surreal dinner table scene in movie history, one that, despite Meryl Streep's best efforts in August: Osage County, probably won't ever be topped.
Hearing Violet Weston berate her family members is unpleasant, sure, but it's not all that disturbing. You know, deep down, she and her beleaguered Westons love each other—it's the epitome of "tough love," but it is love. Leatherface, his brother, father, and cadaverous grandpa also seem to love each other, but they're also flesh-and-blood monsters. Having pinned Sally's arms to the literal "arms" of a chair (as in, they've laid out severed human arms on the chair) and placed a bunch of meat (most likely from one of her dead friend's bodies) in front of her on a plate, Leatherface's family unit prove to be the dinner hosts from Hell. As Sally screams louder and louder for help, they mock her with playful screams of their own, after laughing at her misery.
Even worse, this is what it looks like from her point-of-view:
I'll take Meryl Streep's icy stare over that every single time.
As much as Leatherface's fam devours human flesh and innards at that dinner table, they're also chewing through Sally's fears, of which there are, understandably, many—she hasn't even gotten to worst part of the evening, when Leatherface's daddy puts a hammer in grandpa's limp hands and helps him bash it over Sally's pinned-down head. Violet Weston's granddaughter Jean, on the other hand, merely has to witness her mother and grandma tear each other down with words and then briefly go all WWE Divas on one another. And that fear-filled meat on her plate? At least it's not some Weston's intestine.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
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