I saw ‘Suburbicon’ when it debuted at the Venice Film Festival in September. Its reception wasn’t spectacular, and it walked away empty-handed as far as the main awards went, but I would certainly never have predicted the chilly public and critical response that awaited its eventual release. The film was based on an old script written by the Coen Brothers, and its plot is so Coen-esque it borders on parody, its darkly comic clash of suburbia and criminality treading the same path as ‘Blood Simple’, ‘Fargo’ et al. before it. It’s been widely discussed how director George Clooney and his producing and writing partner Grant Heslov added a subplot that deals with the first black family moving into the otherwise white, 1950s neighbourhood in which the A-plot takes place. It strikes me that this addition was the source of much of the negative press – in an intensely divided America, to relegate a family’s suffering of racism to a curious sideshow seems insincere or ignorant. Personally, I enjoyed the film; most of the cast impressed me and Clooney’s handle on the film was fine. However, I also understand that I am a viewer whose life experience is at a significant distance from the particularly American history that engendered much of the critique stateside. As it stands then, ‘Suburbicon’ is somewhat of an enigma, one of those films that will mean very different things to people in different walks of life.
The clearly Coen-authored plot follows Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), a mild-mannered family man who lives with in the titular suburb with his wife Rose (Julianne Moore) and son Nicky (Noah Jupe). The film is told in large parts from the wide-eyed perspective of Nicky. One night, Gardner wakes Nicky to tell him that two robbers (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) have broken into their home. The crooks tie the family to chairs while they look for valuables, but an overdose of chloroform tragically kills Rose. Following the robbery, Rose has barely been laid to rest when her twin sister Margaret (also played by Moore) moves into with Gardner and Nicky, and begins modelling herself after her sister, even sleeping with Gardner. When Gardner fails to finger the crooks in a police line-up and charming investigator Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac, fun and funny) shows up unannounced to grill Margaret about Rose’s handsome life insurance policy, it’s clear that things aren’t as simple as they once appeared.
It sounds like the screenplay is trying to make Rose’s death into a mystery, but it’s all cleared up within the first act. What the Coens are more interested in is the complex, Rube-Goldberg-esque web of ramifications that spread from Gardner’s naïve and bumbling foray into crime. Jerry Lundegaard, the foolish car salesman that the Coen’s wrote into ‘Fargo’, is a clear antecedent of Gardner, though the latter might have more of a mean streak in him. I liked seeing Damon stretch himself, playing a truly unlikeable character, only the second such role I can remember Damon tackling in recent memory (the other being his cowardly astronaut in ‘Interstellar’). Damon is also excellent with the black comedy aspects of the role; while at Venice, one beat that Damon plays out with a sandwich in the final scene received an uproarious response, likely the second biggest laugh I’d experienced throughout the whole festival. While Moore’s dual roles are played with a queasy, sickly-sweet approximation of 1950s nuclear family happiness, Noah Jupe gets a chance to express a nice range of bewilderment and shrewd distrust. As director, Clooney has a decent grasp of the farcical tone that he’s aiming for, although one can’t help but retrospectively wonder how the Coens would have fared tackling their own screenplay.
The secondary plot, inserted by Clooney and Heslov, depicts the white community’s unbridled rage at the arrival of the first African American family in their idyllic, racially homogeneous neighbourhood. What starts with a few sideways glances soon becomes flagrant hostility, as dozens of locals soon set up camp around their yard and begin producing a cacophony of sounds with bull horns and trash cans and so on. I still don’t have a complete gauge on why Clooney and Heslov felt the need to meld this into the narrative – perhaps their suffering puts the ludicrous, self-inflicted pain of the Lanes into perspective – but I never found it distracting. It could be argued that the racism is underplayed by being made secondary to the white family’s story, but I found that they had some narrative impact to impart upon each other. Having also seen and reviewed the searing drama ‘Detroit’ this week, I am deeply aware of the racial scars that mark America’s past and present, so I am not blind to the justification that many cited when calling ‘Suburbicon’ a failure. However, its tone struck me as primarily comedic, which was enough to get me through these quibbles. That said, I stress that this may not be the case for all viewers. Just like life in the suburbs, ‘Suburbicon’ will not be to everyone’s taste.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting