17th Nov2017

‘Suburbicon’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac, Gary Basaraba | Written by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, George Clooney, Grant Heslov | Directed by George Clooney


Legend has it that the Coen Brothers penned this dark satire back in the 1980s, around the time of Blood Simple. So it’s interesting the extent to which Suburbicon feels like a product of our time – that is, a reflection of US anxieties about race, immigration and social cohesion.

The film’s title refers to a fictional, yet depressingly plausible, 1950s experiment: a 60,000-strong utopian community comprised purely of white people, content and complacent behind a bulwark of quaint picket fences. (The faux promo which opens the film is like something out of a Fallout game.) We join the story at the moment when the first African-American family, the Myers, moves into the neighbourhood.

Suburbicon rapidly descends into criminality. But it’s nothing to do with the Myers. While the focus is locked on that racist furore (itself based on a real-life incident in Pennsylvania in 1957), Gardner Lodge’s (Matt Damon) family is imploding just across the street. Gardner’s son, Nicky (Noah Jupe), is woken in the middle of the night and is calmly brought downstairs by his father. There are “men in the house”: two robbers, who tie up the family and smother them with chloroform. During the robbery, Nicky’s mother, Rose (Julianne Moore), is killed.

Here, the narrative shifts from edgy thriller to darkly comic murder mystery. Lieutenant Hightower (Jack Conley, whose character I’d like to think is a reference to Police Academy) starts investigating the family’s new situation. Why has Rose’s twin sister, Margaret (also Moore), suddenly moved in? Why were the robbers caught with a stack of cash, when there was none in the house to steal? By the time insurance investigator Bud Cooper (a twinkling Oscar Isaac) gets involved, the whole situation is looking very fishy indeed.

This being a Coen’s joint, the plot has its curveballs, but it’s not as aggressively convoluted as their most twisting work. Events are largely viewed from the perspective of young Nicky – sometimes literally, but elsewhere simply with a childish eye. So, some machinations are confusing in their motivation, whereas others are absurdly obvious. The child’s-eye-view also goes some way to explaining the broadness of the social commentary, forever present in the parallel plot about the Myers family.

Clooney and co. are unsubtle in making the Myers’ experience an allegory for the situation in America today. The locals feverishly conflate the arrival of this proud black family with the Lodges’ entirely unrelated crimes, just as they blame the Myers for the dissolution of their community. Integration is allegedly at fault for the segregation the very supremacists themselves impose. They literally build a wall around the Myers – and there’s even a town hall argument about who’ll pay for it. The film’s conclusion that racial integration is the true utopia is an unashamed middle finger to the Cult of Trump.

If this all sounds heavy, that’s because it kind of is. The trailer is a lie, wilfully plucking the wackiest jokes out of their darkly satirical context. (A low CinemaScore, D- in this case, often points to a misleading marketing campaign.) The mood here is mostly sombre. Not quite Good Night and Good Luck’s dreamy softness; but we still get an atmospheric rendition of period America, punctuated with smoky jazz. And then there’s the melodrama, gloriously old-school scored by Alexandre Desplat, who’s channelling Bernstein, Herrman and Elfman in equal measure.

Damon delivers a wonderfully dry, slyly vicious performance. Moore’s perma-grinning housewife could be one of the nasty friends of her character in Far From Heaven. Isaac is slimily great, making the most of small, vital role. But the revelation is Jupe. This is a tough ask for a child actor: playing a part that demands only observation for large stretches, while the adults act out. But Jupe is so subtly expressive, and innocent without being cutesy.

Quite why Suburbicon has been so poorly received by US critics and audiences is a mystery. Sure, its politics are painted in broad strokes – but then, the dominant ideology it targets is hardly a paragon of nuance. Clooney’s balancing act is between heightened style and seriousness of theme, and it works, lending the film a consistent clarity and an addictive shock value. Expect a rambunctious comedy and you’re liable to be disappointed. But expect a taut, fast-moving, blackly comic thriller, beautifully directed and edited, with a range of skilful performances, and you may feel rewarded.

Suburbicon is out in cinemas from 24 November 2017.


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