Film Review – Suburbicon
There are two conflicting stories taking place in Suburbicon (2017), and while both have some merit on their own, together they create an imbalance that doesn’t pay off. Is this a black comedy? Is it a murder mystery? Is it a social satire? By dipping its toes into all of these different elements, the film ultimately doesn’t fully examine any of them.
This may very well be the result of the different creative forces behind the project. The first is from co-writer/director George Clooney, whose contribution – we sense – involve more of the political side of the narrative. We’re introduced to a small, mid-20th century community named Suburbicon. The residents of this town have a cookie-cutter aesthetic, where all the houses look picturesque, all the lawns are green, and everybody knows everybody else by name. Ellen Chenoweth’s camera captures this world with a fuzzy, nostalgic quality. But underneath the façade of social stability lies prejudice and hate. When the Mayers (Leith M. Burke/Karimah Westbrook)– a black family – moves into the neighborhood, racism and discrimination come bubbling to the surface, resulting in citizens badgering and harassing the family in hopes that they will leave.
While I’m sure Clooney’s intentions were in a good place with this particular set up, the problem lies in who’s perspective we’re seeing this take place. The Mayers are the victims of a society bred on bigotry, but we witness this through the eyes of the white characters. We learn nothing about Mayers; they are treated as nothing more than objects in which others project their true characteristics onto. There’s a big risk here. By not giving the Mayers actual personalities, by not developing them well enough to be flesh and blood people, Clooney uses them as a comment on everyone else. He uses black pain to reveal more about the white characters, which does not feel as progressive or open-minded as I think he was trying to be. If anything, it comes off as culturally insensitive.
The second story, I assume, come from the minds of Joel and Ethan Coen, who co-wrote the screenplay with Clooney (along with Grant Heslov). I say this because the premise is similar to stories we have seen from the Coens before – involving quirky characters stuck in criminal situations far bigger than they can handle. Gardner (Matt Damon) is an upstanding citizen of Suburbicon, living with his invalid wife (Julianne Moore), his son Nicky (Noah Jupe), and his wife’s twin sister (also Julianne Moore). But within this family dynamic hides a sinister plot involving dead bodies, hit men, and a-too-smart-for-his-own-good insurance investigator (Oscar Isaac). Soon enough, characters end up in a bloody mess, trying to hide secrets in increasingly desperate manners.
Damon was a good choice to play Gardner. Throughout, his presence kept reminding me of his excellent work in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), which traversed similar ground. Damon has a way of naturally pulling our empathy, and then flipping that expectation when it’s revealed that he’s not as wholesome as he may appear. But the problem with Suburbicon is that his character sits right beside others who are just as despicable. Damon, Moore, and Isaac bring flair and energy to their roles, but each of them are so wicked that I found difficulty staying interested in whether or not their got away with their schemes. In Fargo (1996) the Coens gave us a crime story involving a host of bad people, but the true heart of that film (which ultimately helped make it a masterpiece), was Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson. She injected a morality that worked in contrast with everyone else. I suppose Nicky is supposed to play a similar role here, but he’s too passive a character to have a significant effect.
This plot is meant to play as a black comedy, but the writing and direction doesn’t push it far enough. Why are we supposed to care about anything that happens between these people? If it was supposed to be a dark comedy, it was not nearly as dark or comedic enough. The production wasted good art and costume design with a story that feels half cooked. And most disastrously, juxtaposing this with the Mayer’s story – taking place literally across the street – leads to a tone-deafness that borders on being offensive. Are we supposed to laugh at what happens to Gardner and his family, and in the very next scene watch what happens to the Mayers and seriously contemplate the social implications of it? Often, characters criss cross between the two threads: Gardner will weave his way through the growing riot or Andy (the young son of the Mayers, played by Tony Espinosa) will interact with Nicky. But the two narratives belong in two complete different movies.
And that’s the real disappointment with Suburbicon. Clooney attempted to take the idea of an idealistic suburban life and show the ugliness underneath it, but he does so with an unsure hand. Clooney has proven himself talented enough a filmmaker to tell compelling stories, but with his latest endeavor he is in conflict with the message he’s trying to get across. Is he trying to be sincere or ironic? Is he trying to be sly or straightforward? This confusion in tone causes us to walk away wondering: What the heck was the point of all that?