Reviewed by © Jane Freebury
It can’t be as bad as all that, can it? I mean, Suburbicon is directed by the sophisticate George Clooney. Those brilliant, witty purveyors of comedy noir, Joel and Ethan Coen, wrote the original screenplay and Matt Damon is in the lead. All are men of discernment, with talent to spare.
Yet the news just in from the box office this week is that ticket sales for Suburbicon are poor. The reviews aren’t good either. Something has gone quite wrong here.
It’s not like Clooney is an inexperienced director. This is the 6th film he has directed in a decent body of work, of which Good Night and Good Luck is the standout.
As an actor in the Coen brothers’ films O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Burn After Reading and most recently on Hail, Caesar!, Clooney has worked a treat. One of the reasons I’ve looked forward to their collaborations is their work together seems organic, probably because they have a shared vision. One can only imagine what a hoot it is on set.
From an original Coen brothers’ script from the 1980s, developed by Clooney and his co-writer Grant Heslov, Suburbicon knocks down the picket fence and strips the neat and tidy surface off contented domesticity in the typical, unremarkable suburban bungalow. To show us what suburbanites are really like. Welcome to Suburbicon, the ‘perfect place to raise a family’.
Located in the 1950s America, when vast tracts of new suburbs were spreading outside the cities, attracting residents with the promise of affordable housing and the benefits of city life without the disadvantages, the film really looks the part.
From the featureless suburban streetscapes to the television sets and kitchen utensils inside the home, the meticulous sets and period perfect detail are a joy. From the tie that Gardner Lodge (Damon) keeps on at home, to the striped t-shirts worn by his son Nicky (Noah Jupe, an excellent young actor), to the heels and flared skirts that women wear as they do the housework and the grocery shopping.
It might be a problem for Gardner and his family that the new neighbours over the back fence, the Mayers and their young son, are African-American. But he doesn’t actually connect with this, a situation that is a critical issue for the rest of the neighbourhood – and the shopkeepers and the postman. Small town racial prejudice is rife in Suburbicon, and it’s not at all pretty.
Like the main character in the Coen brothers’ classic dark comedy, Fargo, Gardner is preoccupied with how he can get rid of his wife Margaret (Julianne Moore), wheelchair bound as a result of an accident when he was driving, and install her sister Rose (also played by Moore) in her place.
To achieve this, he and Rose descend into a murderous mayhem, even despatching one of the film’s best characters, the insurance assessor played by Oscar Isaac. Young Nicky bears witness to it all.
Suburbicon is sometimes hard to watch, with its 1950s television score on the soundtrack, underlining critical points with heavy handed emphasis.
When all is done, a neighbour complains that none of this sort of thing happened before the Mayers moved in.
As that’s the point Clooney says he wants to make to bring the film into the current day – that mainstream American society blames the minorities for its own issues – then why didn’t he work the Mayers into his narrative, instead of leaving them in the background with barely any speaking roles?
Clooney has said he didn’t feel qualified to write narrative for African-Americans, and it has turned out a misjudgement because this timidity has skewed his film. He doesn’t have the Coen brothers’ light comedic touch either.
Suburbicon is set in the pre-dawn before the sixties civil rights movements that swept the country. Unmasking the evil in suburbia is nothing if not a familiar trope in countless films, and that includes teen horror films.
Some films like American Beauty, Blue Velvet, Pleasantville, and The Truman Show have made satirising suburbia an art form. Suburbicon is instead a harsh lesson with heavy messaging, the kind of thing that rarely works.
Rated MA 15+, 105 minutes
Jane’s reviews are also published at the Canberra Critics Circle and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7