Watching "August: Osage County" one is reminded of someone leaving a Tennessee Williams play, who said "I've often had a migraine – this is the first time I've watched one".
This is emphatically not a "feel-good" movie, but it may well be a great one.
In a tradition encompassing Arthur Millar, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and Eugene O'Neill, comes playwright Tracy Letts' vitriolic Broadway triumph depicting a deeply dysfunctional Oklahoma extended family.
Add six Oscar nominated actors, a large run-down old house, and a sense of being in the middle of nowhere.
The patriarch of the family, Beverly (played by Sam Shephard) tells us that he and his wife have an agreement – she takes pills, and he drinks. He is an erstwhile writer, who quotes T S Eliot - "life is very long". He solves that problem by being found drowned in a nearby lake.
Hence the funeral which drags together the extended Weston clan – three daughters, sundry significant others, relatives and long-time contemporaries.
We meet Barbara (Julia Roberts) whose shop-soiled worn beauty adds poignancy to her terror that she is becoming her mother, just as her mother became Barbara's grandmother. Barbara comes with her estranged husband (Ewan McGregor) and her impossible teenager Jean.
Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) has remained trapped at home, and a secret emerges that she is in love with her cousin, Charles, (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is constantly undermined and derided by his mother, who in turn is hiding another sickly and devastating secret from her son.
Karen (Juliette Lewis) arrives in a scarlet Ferrari driven by her beau (Dermot Mulroney) who is a hustler who is clearly untrustworthy on most levels – even with a susceptible teenager.
All quail under the tongue of the cancer-stricken widow Violet (Meryl Streep) whose mantra of always telling the truth is used as a pretext for being laceratingly demeaning to anyone who comes in her sights.
This is a huge and demanding part, and Streep inhabits it fully, with black wig, black sunglasses, foul vocabulary and cynical mind. She misses nothing as she alienates and damages everyone around her.
Streep is unforgettable in this part – daemonic, stiletto tongued, ranging from quiet poison to roaring rage, and occasionally tragic as we sense her inability to let anyone close, and learn of how she became so damaged and so alone.
Roberts is a perfect foil. Hurt, without hope, determined stoically to confront whatever life deals her, she is a victim of her past, and a destroyer of her future. "Thank God we can't tell the future. We'd never get out of bed".
Streep and Roberts have the pivotal roles but all of the cast are strong.
This is a film which will be watched and studied fifty years from now, when many of the "feel good" movies have been forgotten.