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The Grim Side of Suburbia

Media from the 1950s is often guilty of portraying a quaint society free of harm, disruption, or discomfort. Particularly early television shows from that period like Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and Leave it to Beaver often focussed on perfect nuclear families living in healthy suburbia. You could even make the argument they’re what some older people really mean when they refer to the “good old days”. The goal of Suburbicon is to subvert these notions of the peaceful idyllic middle class lifestlye of the 1950’s. And by golly, does it ever!
The plot concerns a peaceful constructed neighbourhood called Suburbicon, recently upset by an African-American family being integrated into what they assumed was a whites-only community. As this is going on, robbers break into the home of Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) one night and kill his wife Rose (Julianne Moore) with chloroform. Shortly after, Rose’s twin sister Margaret (also Moore) permanently moves in, and Gardner’s son Nicky (Noah Jupe) begins to suspect something’s not right with these new arrangements.
A lot of the effect of Suburbicon relies on gradual reveals and escalating circumstances which I won’t get into. But the film certainly keeps you interested and on your toes. It’s directed by George Clooney, his first he hasn’t also starred in. And he certainly has fun with the 1950’s aesthetic, but the plot, tone, and pacing is far more evocative of the work of his collaborators and screenplay writers, Joel and Ethan Coen. As with most of their movies, Suburbicon is very well written, and has a lot of the hallmarks of a Coen Brothers script, including the balancing act of crime drama and dark comedy they’ve perfected in the likes of Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, and especially Fargo. Here, it’s not as neatly ingrained, but still works okay. It gets pretty dark pertaining to how dysfunctional the Lodge family becomes, yet there’s still funny scenes like the moment from the trailer where Gardner escapes a fiery accident on a kids’ bicycle.
Where the film falters though is in the backdrop of racial tension and the riotous peoples’ harassment of the African-American family. Aside from an unnecessary point of Nicky befriending their son as a large fence is being built around their house, they don’t serve any purpose to the Lodge storyline and are a largely superfluous plot element. It seems to be there just to remind the audience of how tolerant racism was in the 1950s and there are plenty of other movies that explore that with more insight. Clooney and his writing partner co-wrote the screenplay, and you can tell these scenes are directly from them in contrast to the Coens’ material. And it’s very uneven. The resolution of this subplot is unsatisfying; and it just doesn’t feel right that this story about racial injustice is taking a back seat to the problems of a very middle class white family next door. There is an intentional point to this: the contrast between the public’s attention on these two families, but it’s not apparent enough to justify how jarringly separate one storyline is from the other.
Matt Damon is good as Lodge, playing him with the sort of nervous quirkiness that’s been known of a few Coen Brothers characters. He might be a little miscast though, as Damon isn’t a natural fit for the unsuspecting awkward patriarch. However I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him play this unlikeable a character. Moore is also alright as Margaret and Rose, though I think it would have been more unsettling given later developments, if Rose had been played by a different actress. I liked Glenn Fleshler as George Remus on Boardwalk Empire, so it’s good to see him in a bigger role here as one of the robbers. And Oscar Isaac is fantastic as a clever and snarky insurance agent tailing the crime. Gary Basaraba’s Uncle Mitch though is a bit of a strange figure with an over-the-top accent. And though Jupe is okay, his character is incredibly flat. A good portion of the movie is told through Nicky’s perspective, but he doesn’t talk much and isn’t gifted with a personality apart from being introverted and suspicious.
Suburbicon is a solid effort, if not being quite as good as it could have been. It needed to narrow its focus on the family crime angle and maybe flesh out the characters better. But it’s still an engaging movie as it de-constructs those ideal 50’s archetypes by going to some dark and strange places. It’s well-written, funny, surprising, and fascinating -something none of those aforementioned T.V. shows were.

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