Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Issac
Director: George Clooney
Running Time: 103 mins
Synopsis: Suburbicon is an idyllic peaceful suburban community with perfectly manicured lawns and affordable homes. In the Summer of 1959 the town is rocked by the arrival of the first black family, racial tensions exploding with very little provocation. Meanwhile long time resident Gardner Lodge (Damon) navigates a path of deceit, betrayal and murder, right under the noses of these bigoted townsfolk.
30 years ago, fresh from the success of their debut feature Blood Simple, Joel and Ethan Coen found themselves in hot demand. They now had free rein to pick one of the copious scripts the twosome had forged in an attempt to hit the big leagues, one of these was the twee sounding Suburbicon. Perhaps sensing that the film was not quite fully formed they instead opted for the crazed absurdity of Raising Arizona for their next endeavour, and Suburbicon became lost. Until actor turned director George Clooney stumbled on its existence, deciding it could perfectly fit in with the current story he had formulating in his head about an innocent black family enraging an isolated bigoted middle America community when they move in. Sadly he fails to successfully marry the two distinct thematic strands or invest their individual parts with any sort of excitement.
After a helpful 50s infomercial outlines this day-glo pastel hued suburban community, the sort of place that Tim Burton’s early films would feel right at home with, Clooney shakes this respectful sickeningly sweet town with the arrival of the Mayers family. An African-American couple and their young son, whom almost immediately rattle those around to the point of stunned silence. The discovery of their relocation by the local postman is a delightful play on the barely contained niceties of institution racism. Almost wordlessly Clooney builds this quiet completely innocent family’s nightmare to deafening levels. Townsfolk silently staking out their house, an imposing fence built around them and finally scenes of utter chaos as rioters bombard the house with rocks and fire. These scenes have a palpable sense of dread about them, with the lack of character dimensions given to the Mayer family accentuating the statements Clooney is making, albeit it does have the element of emotional distance from them as individuals. Effective though they may be, Clooney and fellow scripter Grant Heslov don’t quite grace these scenes with as much insight as you’d hope from the guys who brought you Good Night and Good Luck.
It certainly doesn’t help that these moments of anguished bullying and racist attacks are fitfully combined with the main Coen-inflected story, which documents the madcap antics of the Lodge family. A seemingly blue-collar family unit, whom underneath the friendly smiles and loving nature exists an underbelly of cruel darkness. It is one of the many Coen Bros tropes that lurk throughout this part of the story. Patriarch Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon, going to some truly monstrous places) is the typical Coen lead of a man desperately over his head, orchestrating a home invasion that results in the death of his wife ( a wheelchair bound Julianne Moore) in order to claim the insurance money for him and her sister (also Moore, hamming up the 50s joviality with her bubbly persona). Complicating matters are the inquisitive eyes of son Nicky (a confident startlingly mature performance from Noah Jupe), the angry duo responsible for said invasion (one of which is played by Glenn Fleshler continuing the malevolent grubbiness he displayed in True Detective) and the investigative nose of Oscar Issac’s insurance handler. Issac is always a welcome presence and gets the choicest of Coens lines here in a brief but memorable role.
Despite the inclusion of what is evidently some rich Coens scripted dialogue, their usual storytelling tropes feel a little too underdeveloped. The playful absurdity, the steadily escalating calamities, the unexpected but brutal bouts of bloody violence, the resolution that ultimately crime never pays, it is all here. But the characters lack that surreal offbeat spice, the structure feels less focused and the outcome feels painfully obvious. There is a sense that another few passes by the Brothers may have tightened it into something stronger but the fact that they’ve done this sort of thing before frequently and with far more skill signifies why Suburbicon may have been abandoned by them originally. Certain Clooney flourishes do work. He shoots well, composing some striking images, particularly his constant use of intense close ups and a fight scene completely shot from underneath a child’s bed. The 50s style is amped up to its brightly coloured best with a peppy portentous score from Alexandre Desplat. Performances are also thoroughly watchable, with Damon enjoying playing it dark for once. A dinner table scene towards the end is shockingly creepy, as he threatens his own son with brutal horrors. However, it is in the storytelling itself where Clooney fails dramatically.
In trying to combine the zany antics of a Coen Brothers film, social satire, 50s melodrama and racial commentary, he overshoots his mark, never settling on a consistent tone. His intentions are clear, attempting to remark on how an innocent family can be judged as indecent and criminal just because of the colour of their skin, and yet just over the road a supposedly upstanding white family can commit such heinous acts with nary so much as a mild suspicion. But the message is lost amidst such haphazard tonal juggling. This is a combination that may have looked good on paper but fails to collide into a coherent whole. Even the Coen Brothers knack for black as nails comedy is conspicuously absent. Sometimes there is a reason why a script goes unfilmed for 30 years!
Verdict: Suburbicon is an awkward mix of a first draft Coen Brothers film and broad racial politicising, with only the skills of its charismatic performers to carry it through. An underwhelming vehicle for George Clooney’s directorial skills.