Movie Reviews, page one

note: all star ratings have to do with whether I think the story told is a realistic portrayal. In fact, all reviews are about covering issues related to abuse, scapegoating, toxic family portrayal, alcoholic family portrayal, substance abuse family portrayal, children from abusive families and their experiences, and how effective that portrayal is, not about how effective the movie-making is, or the set design, or production, directing and acting. I leave those concerns to other writers and reviewers. I don't even cover whether I would recommend the movie to others based on my likes and dislikes; I only recommend movies that I think will open people's eyes as to how survivors of abuse live in the world. 

This page contains reviews for:
Into the Wild
August Osage County

Into the Wild 
(written, directed and produced by Sean Penn)

According to Wikipedia, Into the Wild is a 2007 American biographical drama survival film ... It is an adaptation of the 1996 non-fiction book of the same name by Jon Krakauer based on the travels of Christopher McCandless across North America and his life spent in the Alaskan wilderness in the early 1990s.

The reason I am covering this film is that Christopher McCandless was from a home where domestic violence allegedly occurred.


Into the Wild is a retelling of the story of Christopher McCandless, who grew up in an abusive family (or so his sister, Carine McCandless, has reported in her book, The Wild Truth).

Briefly Christopher's story goes something like this:

He graduated from college with honors. His family were wealthy-ish suburbanites who strove to put their values into their children. But Christopher was a free spirit and was turned off by the expectations of the materialistic culture and the expectations of people in that culture, which included his parents. In his youth he found out that his father also had a child around the same age with an ex-wife. His parents kept up pretenses, and even pretended to get along with each other despite the domestic violence scenes between them. But Christopher felt they were all living a lie, and that the "family unit" was a lie.

As Carine McCandless recounts in this memoir:

Chris & I were born to Billie while our father was still married and continued his family with his first wife Marcia. Both families suffered through constant domestic violence, threats and deception. I believe that to not acknowledge at least these basic facts is an injustice to Chris and all that he endured ...

... Perhaps I cannot escape the irony that as children, throughout dad’s gin induced rages, we were reminded that he himself was God, so his actions could not be wrong. This weighed heavily on us, especially after returning home from church and the Sunday school classes our parents taught ...

... I feel that my parents are attempting to take advantage of vague portrayals of our history with their efforts to create a new one. To imply things were different than they were goes against Chris and everything he stood for. Their written position that they were "dedicated" to making sure there was "seamless interaction" between our two families is a stark contrast to the painful events that were woven into our childhood ...

... From the time we were small children, still unaware of how children come to be, I remember Chris being consistently told through our mother’s tears that the family struggles began with his birth, when she became “stuck” with our dad. Chris carried this unfounded guilt with him until the wisdom that comes with age resulted in feelings of betrayal and eventually anger. This mislaid blame was never rescinded, only ignored. Seeing no alternative but to completely remove himself from the pain he could not manage, Chris had just cause to leave in the way that he did. For him it was a matter of survival. He overcame adversity to live a positive and beautiful existence on this earth. His brothers and sisters understand and respect that.

So Christopher McCandless embarked on his own journey to find "the truth" by giving up his family of origin, giving away his money to Oxfam, burning his identification papers, abandoning his car, renaming himself, and embarking on a gypsy life, hoping to end up in the Alaska wilds.

Through hitchhiking journeys, he eventually made it to Alaska, and lived alone in an abandoned bus.

My comments:

In most ways, children of abuse ALL end up going into the wild, whether that is literal or not.

I do know of a few people from my highschool days who lived as close to this lifestyle as you can imagine, one of them in a lean-to in the White Mountains, even in winter. I was close to more survivors in my twenties than most people come across in a lifetime. They simply disappeared from their families, either without a trace or via minimal contact, trying to forge their own lives and truths separate from their parents. Some were from suburban homes and found suburbia to be spiritually dead and banal. Even though their closest friends were a good deal less threatening than the parents, they had to find themselves on their own.

Living the gypsy life can put you in touch with what life really means because there isn't anything to hold onto in the material world. It is all given up for the sake of experience and being in the world in the most authentic and sensory way: often out in the open with no shelter.

Over a third of the homeless in this country are domestic abuse survivors (which include child abuse victims). Another third are veterans. That means that the majority of the homeless are dealing with PTSD.

In this story, however, homelessness is Christopher's chosen life, a part of a rebellion against his upbringing and his parent's expectations of him.

I found this story realistic in terms of what a survivor might do to find himself and to seek a life that is about his own well-being instead of worrying about what his parents wanted for him.

One reason why children of abusive homes go out into the wild, whether it is a move, a drastic career shift, an unorthodox lifestyle, joining intentional communities, communes or cults, taking off with a lover, joining the circus, joining a band, getting a degree in philosophy, becoming a social worker, hiking the Appalachian Trail, is that they are uniquely family-less. Forging ones individuality is all that there is left. No one from a normal family will quite understand what this feels like, but it means that energy and thought are diverted away from the family. The identity and judgments of the family are out-right lies (the "you're worthless without us", or "you're worthless without doing exactly what we want" kinds of messages that are common for abusive families). The child, then, must become an autonomous survivalist power-house. Strength and trust has to go to oneself first and foremost because it cannot go to the family who either makes it known that his membership is tenuous, or that the autonomy of his decisions are tenuous -- or else.

Not accepting children for who they are, as was the case with Christopher, is a way of rejecting and ostracizing a child. After a child turns 18, the child cannot be molded by the parents any more, but many parents keep trying to do it anyway, creating great harm. Children are not meant to live lies, and the scapegoat child is especially expected to live the lie that he is deficient and at fault for everything that goes wrong in the family. Scapegoats are often the only ones keeping the family together too: by accepting blame, the rest of the members are able to uphold the lie that the family is a "perfect unit with perfect parents". In fact, the family is arm-twisted to accept the script that everyone in the family is perfect while the scapegoat is not. The scapegoat accepting blame is the only way the others get to appear perfect and without fault. So the scapegoat carries the burden of the family. In fact, parents who insist that they are perfect, and the authority figures, are most often the least perfect parents, and the least likely to be trusted as authority figures. They tend to be hypocrites at the very least, and abusive at the very most. If there is a lot of labeling and verbal abuse, the scapegoat is expected to go along with a role that he doesn't believe in. The persona that he has been blackmailed to accept in a play where his parents are directors, is not something that resonates as the truth.

In addition, he may also be expected to perpetuate a lie that his parents care about him and his well being, even when it becomes clear they really don't. Every personality in family life with abuse in it is about a lie: it is about perpetuating the parents' perspectives, period. Everyone in the family is expected to keep the lie going in order to coddle the dysfunction and keep the family intact. If the family has one or more alcoholics, narcissists or sociopaths, this is especially the case.

In order to escape the lies, and experience the truth, it is always necessary to go "out into the wild", whether that be for years, a decade, or a life time.

In the case of McCandless, the parents did not know their son, or try to know him on his own terms.

But many abusive parents take that to another level, worsening the message further: giving their children the silent treatment or ostracizing them in order to purposely hurt their child. Their intentions for this are to punish him, to get him back into the false role and play. However, this usually backfires. They simply do not care what kind of impact that they are having on their child.

Ostracized children and parents who expect their children to be someone other than who they truly are can end up estranged from each other forever. They might have children who go for uncharted territory, searching anywhere and everywhere for truth, connection and meaning. Parents who have children who feel alienated will have to come to terms that their child will never share their perspective. These parents will not know who their children really are, who they are with, where they are going, where they are living or why they are living a certain way. Some parents make it clear that they don't care anyway: if they can't have children the way they want them (serving parental needs and expectations), the children are worthless and unwanted.

Parents who try to continually mold and expect from their children can and do end up with adult children like Christopher. The adult child will seek his own direction, his own identity and his own truth, different from the ones the parents expected.

As hunter/gatherers we could not survive without each other, so ostracizing a child was a real "shoot yourself in the foot" move. It could mean that your child would not survive (after spending so much of your life investing in him). The paradox of this is that the parents were not likely to survive either. So ostracizing could be a very foolish thing to do unless you could convince other families to take on the role of the child you got rid of (it may be why smear campaigns may still be in use today by narcissists and sociopaths: it is a throw-back reaction: if you hurt other people, smear those people whom you hurt, so that it seems like they were the ones at fault, in order that you might survive and be taken care of by other villagers).

Many of the ways children of abusive families go into the wild:

* becoming drug addicts (two thirds of all active addicts were victims of child abuse)
* becoming commune members
* becoming cult members or leaders
* joining the military
* joining the Peace Corp
* joining a band
* joining a motorcycle group
* becoming run-aways (girls often get picked up by pimps)
* becoming homeless
* becoming involved in a cause that is all-consuming
* becoming ministers, social workers, community workers and political organizers
* being a new member of a foster family (court appointed)
* getting married and making their own families
* giving their money and time to causes
* hiking the Appalachian Trail
* joining programs like Outward Bound
* traveling all over the country or the world
* starting a religious pilgrimage
* staying in ashrams, temples, becoming a nun or monk
* working for retreat centers
* working on family farms
* writing a book
* putting together a body of art work
* going to college or graduate school in a course of study your parents cannot relate to
* joining the circus
* joining a dance group
* joining a religious group or faith
* joining a writer's group
* joining Alanon or Coda and finding ways to make deep connections
* joining a group that fights for survivors' rights
* joining a group of survivors to help get legislation passed
* being a workshop leader
* bringing bullying awareness to schools
* moving overseas or across the country
* forging relationships with types of people who are in direct opposition to your parent's values
* adopting friends as family
* living in a tent, tee pee, cave, lean-to, cabin, gypsy caravan, trailer or sugar shack
* living with a friend and their family
* care-taking a disabled elderly person or child
* helping the poor
* starting a movement
* starting a business
* adopting children
* taking in refugees
* taking in foreign exchange students
* taking in other survivors

More reading:

Into the Wild the original book by mountaineer, Jon Krakauer
From a review by Publisher's Weekly:
After graduating from Emory University in Atlanta in 1992, top student and athlete Christopher McCandless abandoned his possessions, gave his entire $24,000 savings account to charity and hitchhiked to Alaska, where he went to live in the wilderness. Four months later, he turned up dead. His diary, letters and two notes found at a remote campsite tell of his desperate effort to survive, apparently stranded by an injury and slowly starving. They also reflect the posturing of a confused young man, raised in affluent Annandale, Va., who self-consciously adopted a Tolstoyan renunciation of wealth and return to nature. Krakauer, a contributing editor to Outside and Men's Journal, retraces McCandless's ill-fated antagonism toward his father, Walt, an eminent aerospace engineer. Krakauer also draws parallels to his own reckless youthful exploit in 1977 when he climbed Devils Thumb, a mountain on the Alaska-British Columbia border, partly as a symbolic act of rebellion against his autocratic father. In a moving narrative, Krakauer probes the mystery of McCandless's death, which he attributes to logistical blunders and to accidental poisoning from eating toxic seed pods. Maps. 35,000 first printing; author tour.

The Wild Truth by Carine McCandless, Christopher's sister
From reviews:
“The Wild Truth is a moving narrative of domestic abuse, grief and survival, and for the perspective and revelations it contains, an essential addition to the Into the Wild story.” (Newsweek)

“The Wild Truth is an important book on two fronts: It sets the record straight about a story that has touched thousands of readers, and it opens up a conversation about hideous domestic violence hidden behind a mask of prosperity and propriety.” (

Child abuse alters the course of one's life, it leads one off the path, it changes one's direction. The truth in this book is undeniable because the behavior of Carine and Christopher's parents as described comes from the classic playbook of self absorbed, narcissistic parents.
Although far from the norm, there are literally thousands of adult children who could, with the tweaking of a few details, claim this story as their own. Many of us have lost siblings as well because those critical years during childhood, when the networks and connections in the brain were being formed, changed them and drove them into uncharted territories.
We still live in a society where it is taboo for adult children to speak of their abuse. We mistakenly believe that once a child reaches adulthood they can magically shed the damage done with positive thinking and illusory forgiveness. We mistakenly believe this can happen without ever doing the work required to examine the wounds, rewire the brain, discharge repressed emotions and peel away layer after layer of false beliefs.
The work is long, it is hard. The vast majority of people actively doing this work are in their 40's and 50's. Hopefully by lessening the stigma and shedding light on the truth we can help others begin to come out of the fog earlier in life and prevent the losses that have taken some of our best and brightest. This book points us in the right direction.
(Amazon customer review from "Bookworm")

Into the Wild -- the movie on DVD

Chris McCandless’ sisters explain why he went 'Into the Wild' by Rachel Estabrook for Colorado Public Radio

Sisters: 'Into the Wild' story driven by domestic abuse -- a USA Today story

Behind The Famous Story, A Difficult 'Wild Truth' by Heller McAlpin for NPR
the comment section is worth reading too

A Christopher McCandless website set up by a sibling

The Chris McCandless Obsession Problem by Diana Saverin

August, Osage County 
(written by Tracy Letts, directed by John Wells, produced by George Clooney, Jean Doumanian, Grant Heslov, Steve Traxler, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein)

August Osage County stars a group of well known actors including Meryl StreepJulia RobertsEwan McGregorJuliette Lewis and Sam Shepard among others. To me this is not the appeal so much as the story it tells of a dysfunctional family. Granted the actors contribute to the story by successfully embodying their characters. And indeed they depict "under the influence" scenes, verbally attacking each other and disrupting each other (what toxic abusive families are known for) in realistic terms. But does the story line work in terms of portraying what abusive toxic families are really like?

Tony Letts, who wrote the original Oscar-winning and Tony Award-winning screen play, took a lot of the material right out of his childhood. His grandmother, did indeed become a pill addict, and his grandfather committed suicide.

In an interview with NPR, he said:

My grandmother descended into years of downer addiction, which had a horrible impact on my family, and has ripples in my family even to this day. Watching that as a 10-year-old certainly had an impact on me. After I became a dramatist, it certainly seemed like ripe material for a play, and I just thought about it for a really long time before I thought, OK, I think I've got the right container for this story. I think I know the way to tell this story in a way that's personal for me, and ... yet not too personal.

In an interview with the New York Times, he said:

Not only is it a true story of my family and the place I come from and the people I come from, but it is also an embodiment of pretty much everything I believe about the theater and ensemble work.

He spent a lot of years in therapy trying to reconcile with his past, something that most deeply effected members of dysfunctional families find they must do in order to make their lives more pain-free and to move beyond the experiences that originally triggered the pain.

I find the story of the dysfunctional family in this case resonates with the truth.

However, there are some reviewers who feel that the characters continual nastiness, targeted sarcasm, mocking, denigrating and provoking is so relentless, so goading, with barely a respite throughout the film, is why the movie fails as realism and fails to be a compelling movie worth seeing.

But I would beg to differ. As a survivor, a member of survivors groups and someone who is in contact with many survivors, I can tell you that many families are worse (yes worse) than this family.

Between the two main characters, the dysfunctional relationship is an accepted state of affairs. It is seen as a "bargain" between an elderly husband and his elderly wife who is stricken with mouth cancer:

My wife takes pills and I drink.
That's the bargain we've struck.

Except it isn't a bargain that is kept for long. Why? The pill-popping wife, Violet, is left a widow because her husband has gone off and drowned himself -- on purpose.

In the first part of the movie Violet (Meryl Streep) talks in a slurred way and is addicted to a myriad of pills (from the script): Valium, Vicodin. Darvon, Darvocet. Percodan, Percocet. Xanax for fun. OxyContin in a pinch. And of course Diluadid ...

Once the suicide is discovered, the family starts to gather at Violet's house.

Barbara (played by Julia Roberts) arrives with an ex-husband. As she looks out at the Oklahoma farm land from the front passenger seat of the car she says:

What were these people thinking ... the jokers who settled this place. Who was the asshole who saw this flat hot nothing and planted his flag? I mean we fucked the Indians for this?

Yes, there is a lot of swearing in this movie, as well as not seeing value in much of anything.

At some point Violet intimates to Barbara that Barbara was her Daddy's favorite. Then Barbara disagrees, saying, I'd prefer to think my parents loved all their children equally. 

But then Violet snaps back:

I'm sure you'd prefer to think Santy Glaus brought you presents at Ghristmas, too. If you'd had more than one child , you'd know that a parent always has favorites. (please note: mis-spelling are part of the script) 

One thing that all abusive families have in common is "favorite children". Having a favorite child is either flatly denied but in full evidence in front of the other children, or it is openly talked about, as in this case, by a cruel parent, and the other children's noses are rubbed in it and are goaded by it continually. 

In fact, the subject is so uncomfortable for Barbara that her uncle says, "Am I going to have to separate you two?" -- meaning mother and daughter.

It becomes clear that Violet's intentions are to make trouble for her daughter by telling her "the true story":

...  some terrible shit that Daddy said behind my back? 

It is clear that is what Violet's intentions are throughout the story: to tell people things that are cruel, to make them uncomfortable and to put them at odds with one another. Pitting people against each other in a family is one way abusers feel in control. 

But she is not the only one who attacks. Barbara is not innocent, and goes on the offensive with her ex-husband, mother, sisters and daughter. She tells her husband:

Do me the favor of knowing when I'm demeaning you. 

Even the husband is not immune and admits:

I've copped to being a narcissist. We're the products of a narcissistic generation.

Jean, the 14 year old daughter of Barbara, is a pot smoker and a vegetarian. In the dinner scene she is made fun of because she doesn't like the idea of eating meat for reasons that are personal. She is a vegetarian because she is compassionate about animals: she doesn't want to contribute to animals feeling fear right before they are slaughtered.

It is common for verbally abusive families to make a laughing stock out of the empaths and "sensitives" in a family and to justify why they are not of the same mindset. Ridicule is also a way to justify not thinking about what they are doing. It also keeps them from caring about what an empath is feeling and thinking. In fact, it becomes part of the abusive family's "fun games" to continually provoke and deride an empath. One of the characters mocks in this way:

I got a bite of fear! I'm shakin' in my boots! Fear never tasted so good.

Barbara responds:

I catch her eating a cheeseburger every now and again.

Jean, her daughter, denies it:

I do not!

Barbara retorts back:

Double cheeseburger, bacon, extra fear.

There can be many members of abusive families who no longer feel connected after awhile. One of Barbara's sisters says:

I can't perpetuate these myths of family or sisterhood any more. We're just people, some of us accidentally connected by genetics, a random selection of cells. 

Both of Barbara's sisters tell her that they are no longer going to care for their common mother.

You want to stay, that's your decision. But nobody gets to point a finger at me. Nobody.

This is typical too. The sisters do not feel obligated to work together to take care of their mother. It is intimated that two of the three sisters left the area to get away, and the one who did look in on the mother is leaving Oklahoma and going to New York. The family "fun times" have included so much derision, humiliation, shame-making that being part of the family is like being in a bed of prickly thorns all of the time. Working together with a mother who is constantly on the attack is not palatable.

In fact, few siblings from abusive families can work together because they are always judging each other negatively. They have been taught to react in this way from experience. If there is a golden child among them, he (or she) will act like the parent, not only insulting, but also acting like an authority figure with the rest of the siblings, lecturing and constantly criticizing. Eventually they will also take authority away from the parent as well, just as Barbara does. This never works out well in close family relationships.

Siblings from abusive homes also don't feel the same sense of obligation to their parent as those from normal homes. "Getting away", "getting out of the situation" and "autonomy from the family" tend to dominate the thinking of these kinds of children.

Violet, their mother, doesn't want help anyway, even though she is anesthetized to the point of disability. Her doctor wants to put her in a long term care facility for Mild Cognitive Impairment. Abusive mothers tend to pretend they can live without others, without help, without approval or care. They still want to be in charge, and letting on that they need help is something they are not always willing to admit until they have no choice.

In one scene, Jean, who is 14 years old, and the daughter of Barbara, is outside with her aunt's fiancee, who is in his thirties, after everyone else has gone to bed. The fiancee smokes a bowl of weed with Jean and asks if he can see her breasts. He also tries to kiss her through shotgunning which is exhaling marijuana into her mouth. Eventually he also kisses and gropes her, fondling her between the legs.

Smoking marijuana with her and sexual-izing her is called corrupting a minor. It is actually against the law in many states.

When Barbara finds out what happened, she goes on the attack against this fiance. This is pretty normal parental behavior. What is not normal is that she also goes on the attack against her own daughter, slapping her in the face, and then later telling her sister that her daughter is as culpable as the man in his thirties.

Jean says, I hate you!

Barbara says, I hate you too, you little freak!

A lot of people find the "catfish scene" funny. We have been brought up in a culture that finds insults funny (think late-night comedians). But if you were actually raised in a family like this, where someone in your family was yelling at you to eat something you did not want to eat, I doubt you would find it funny at all.

Barbara: Eat.
Violet: No.
Barbara: Eat it. Mom? Eat it.
Violet: No.
Barbara: Eat it, you fucker. Eat that catfish.
Violet: Go to hell.
Barbara: That doesn't cut any fucking ice with me. Now eat that fucking fish.

It is hard to treat a mother with respect who has been saying things like that her whole life to her own children. So when she is weak and acting child-like herself, her daughter takes on the "mother role" and hurls it right back at her.

But that is not the end of it. Then Barbara lights into her sister to eat the catfish too. It is a climactic scene which breaks the family up further.

Alcoholic families are especially known for all of the swearing, commanding, shaming and insulting.

At the end of the movie Violet blames Barbara for her father's suicide (because Barbara moved from Oklahoma to Colorado).

Blaming, blame-shifting and fault-finding is also a huge part of what happens in abusive families. This is ultimately what tears the family apart, making members estranged. Much of the blaming in toxic families is what is termed as erroneous blaming (erroneous allegation), or blaming with outright lies, and meant to hurt, not to solve anything. In order for one member to feel absolved of guilt, the guilt is passed onto another member instead. Abusive mothers are especially known for shoving guilt on to their offspring (scapegoating). They have even been known to like seeing the shock on their children's faces when they do so. See my post on erroneous blaming for more information.

There are very few movies that portray toxic verbally abusive families. I would call this one a mild-moderate version of an abusive family, which is to say most abusive families are worse (and include rampant obvious scapegoating, ostracizing, physical abuse, threats, triangulation, neglect, talking over each other, inappropriate lecturing, lack of respect for politeness and boundaries).

It is the only movie I have seen so far that covers this material at all, however. It is groundbreaking because of that.

The movie was not a great box office hit. Many critics found the script relentlessly depressing, which dampened sales of movie tickets more.

The reason I did not give it five stars is because I believe the script was meant to "entertain" rather than "awaken". I think the author meant it to be a kind of modern day "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf". There are script lines that are clever quips and none of the characters seem all that reflective or enlightened. While no one seems to have time to be reflective with all of the barbs flying about in this script, in a real family at least one member would probably "hold back", be reluctant to "get into the muck" of attack/defend and to be analyzing what everyone is doing.

One character (an inlaw) does point out that the family is mean, and it is a good respite from the rest of the characters. However, there is not enough of it, in my opinion. People who have not grown up with a family like this may see this as just another "southern cracker movie" where disrespect is just part of southern family heritage, and a southern family culture, with a "we're glad we don't belong to a family like that!" attitude, rather than seeing the deeper ramifications for abusive behaviors.

So, there is still room to make other movies (or mini-series) that address the abusive family experience more effectively.  

Further reading:

August Osage County review by Roger Ebert

August Osage County review by David Denby for The New Yorker

DEADLY SYMBIOSIS: ATTACHMENT AND LOSS IN AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY another review that talks about the movie in terms of child abuse issues by Andrew Rose

Kids in Mind (in terms of sex, violence and profanity)

Even for Meryl Streep, the big scene in ‘August’ was work -- by Jake Coyle from the Associated Press (found in the Boston Globe)

interviews and clips:

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