In Suburbicon, you can see the bones of the original screenplay that Joel and Ethan Coen wrote about 30 years ago. The filmmakers’ interest in crimes gone wrong and flawed men lit up by their impossible dreams is central to this tale of a seemingly perfect suburban community that, surprise, isn’t so picturesque after all. But what’s been added to that story ends up getting in the way, resulting in a movie that flits between genres and ideas without ever settling on one coherent, guiding principle. A lot of Coen alumni are in Suburbicon, but you long for the masters to intervene and take the wheel.
Instead, we have George Clooney, a Coen regular who, for the first time in his directorial career, hasn’t cast himself in one of his films. Suburbicon’s ensemble is fronted by Matt Damon, who plays Gardner, a corporate drone with little personality. In the late 1950s, he and his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), sister-in-law Margaret (also Moore) and son Nicky (Noah Jupe) reside in Suburbicon, a suburban American idyll populated by prosperous middle-class families like themselves. But all is not well now that a black family (led by Leith Burke and Karimah Westbrook) has moved in, raising fears of sinking property values and rising crime. Naturally, the fact that they seem like a completely law-abiding, well-to-do family means nothing to the community’s distrustful, racist white denizens.
In one of Suburbicon’s strained ironies, the townspeople’s ignorance is juxtaposed with actual wrongdoing going on right under their noses. In the middle of the night, Gardner and his family are assaulted by two crooks who take them prisoner for reasons that aren’t clear. While chloroforming each of the family members, the criminals use too much on Rose, putting her in a coma that eventually kills her. Gardner is devastated, but Nicky begins noticing that Margaret seems to have assumed his dead mom’s place within the family. He’s even more alarmed when his dad goes to a police lineup to identify the crooks—and then declines to name them, allowing them to go free.
Something’s rotten in the state of Suburbicon, and for a while Clooney has fun letting the mystery unspool. Because we see these events from the boy’s perspective, there are extra layers of slithering dread in watching Nicky discover that his perfect family has long been a lie. In such moments, Suburbicon has the potential to be a deft coming-of-age thriller, as shades of Hitchcock start to creep into the film’s portrayal of Gardner, a dull nobody with a dark streak beneath his conservative wardrobe, nerdy glasses and muted demeanor.
Suburbicon couldn’t ask for a better cast—Oscar Isaac shows up at about the halfway point to steal the movie as a suspicious insurance-claim inspector—and its below-the-line talent is equally stellar. The mid-century period detail is all immaculate thanks to production designer James D. Bissell, and the movie (shot by Oscar-winner Robert Elswit) looks like it’s an accomplished, ambitious undertaking. But whereas Clooney encourages us to inspect Suburbicon’s jaundiced underbelly, the problem with Suburbicon is that viewers will soon realize that there’s not much to the film beyond its gorgeous design.
The blame, in large part, goes to Clooney, who is credited with the screenplay alongside his longtime producing partner Grant Heslov and the Coens. As Clooney has explained in interviews, the original screenplay didn’t feature the finished film’s racial dimension, which was invented by Clooney and Heslov to underscore the hypocrisy of this god-fearing society. Unfortunately, that choice comes across as deeply condescending. It’s noble to want to show the racial animus that festered during this period of supposed postwar bliss, but for Suburbicon to really sting, it needs to make those black characters resonate. At the very least, it would be nice if they spoke. But Burke and Westbrook are given painfully little to do—a creative decision, one assumes, that’s meant to intentionally marginalize them in the story. In reality, however, it suggests a filmmaker who isn’t particularly interested in doing much with this black family other than to score some points off their misery.
That might be Suburbicon’s most irritating element, but it’s not the only frustration. Throughout, the film clings to an idea that it’s somehow telling us something we don’t know about 1950s America or the stultifying conformity of suburban life. None of the film’s ruminations reveal much edge or insight, however. And Clooney’s aping of the Coens’ deadpan menace only illustrates that a director can mimic their style but never quite grasp the underlying wit that gives it vibrancy.
Damon plays Gardner as a variation of the put-upon men we’ve seen in Fargo and A Serious Man, although it’s no fair spoiling whether he’s actually a heel or a Job-like martyr. But the script doesn’t dig too deeply into this man’s inner workings, and so Damon plays him with a blandness that rarely leads to much more. The film’s general intellectual laziness seeps in to Moore’s dual roles, as well. Whether as the saintly, sickly Rose or the teasingly nefarious Margaret, the actress amuses herself with the character types she’s portraying, resulting in performances that feel complacent rather than assured.
Suburbicon has clever twists throughout and a finale that hints at how one generation learns from the mistakes of the one that preceded it. But Clooney is far too self-congratulatory in his commentary—he either wants credit for how enlightened he is or wants to applaud us for being hip enough to catch what’s superficially subversive about this exercise. Suburbicon warns of the dangers of moral rot infesting our communities. No word yet on the effect that chronic smugness might have.
Director: George Clooney
Writers: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen and George Clooney & Grant Heslov
Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe
Release Date: October 27, 2017
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.