Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: George Clooney
Stars: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac, Noah Jupe, Mickey D Cohen, Glenn Fleshler, Gary Basraba.
Set in a neat, homogenous suburban neighbourhood, this deft mix of black comedy, film noir crime thriller and social commentary lays bare the darker underbelly of 50s America, exposing a seething hotbed of racism and violence. With its elements of infidelity, murder, insurance fraud and blackmail, Suburbicon is steeped in the tropes of the classic noir films of the 40s, particularly the likes of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. The script was written by Joel and Ethan Coen who have a great understanding of the noir genre, and has been directed by George Clooney. What we have here is the antithesis of those wholesome family sitcoms that dominated television of the era – Father Knows Best, The Adventures Of Harriet And Ossie, and Leave It To Beaver, etc.
The film is set in a post WWII picture perfect suburb, a homogenous family friendly environment that looks like it was drawn straight from a Norman Rockwell painting. But when the Mayers, an African American family, moves into the neighbourhood they bring out the worst racist excesses of the townsfolk. The scene is set for escalating racial tensions as the neighbours gather on their front lawn chanting epithets and racial taunts in an attempt to drive them out.
Meanwhile a drama of a different sort is playing out in the neighbouring house. Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) is a middle-aged accountant who lives with his wheelchair bound wife Rose (Julianne Moore) and her twin sister Margaret (also played by Moore) and their young son Nicky (Noah Jupe). One night there is a home invasion and two men (Mickey D Cohen and Glenn Fleshler) break into the house, tie the family up and chloroform them. As a result, Rose dies, and Margaret takes over the domestic duties for the house. But there is something slightly off about this crime. Nicky observes events unfold and begins to suspect that there is more to what has happened than on the surface.
Gardner has been hoping to get the insurance money, so he and Margaret can move to another country and begin a new life. Suddenly, Gardner is out of his depth and desperately trying to escape a situation that is rapidly escalating out of control. And when a suspicious insurance investigator (Oscar Isaac) shows up, the situation spirals out of control. The dark heart of suburbia is laid bare as escalating violence and tensions disturb the peace. And as with films like the superior Fargo, the best laid criminal plans quickly go awry due to greed, incompetence and unexpected twists.
The script was written by the Coens a decade or so ago but put aside as they worked on other projects. Clooney and his regular script writer Grant Heslov have taken the old script about murder and infidelity in suburban America of the 50s and shoehorned in the subplot about the Mayers family and their plight. This subplot exploring the burning issues of racism and intolerance is actually based on a real incident that happened in 1957, and reflects Clooney’s interest in social justice and the poisonous politics of the 50s that have shaped some of his films.
Suburbicon is Clooney’s sixth film as a director and it offers up a sly satire of 50s America. Clooney’s previous films as a director (especially Good Night And Good Luck) have revealed a fascination with the darker nature of American society and politics in the decades immediately after WWII. This is his first film as a director though in which he has not played a role on screen. There is a palpable sense of anger just beneath the surface of the film and its exploration of prejudice may remind many of the film Pleasantville. But the Coens’ noir sensibilities clash with Clooney’s sense of moral outrage, and the two diverse plots do not satisfactorily gel as a whole.
Suburbicon is populated by a colourful cast of unsavoury and nasty characters that are typical Coen creations. Clooney draws good performances from his cast. Damon is largely cast against type here as the pudgy, sweaty, desperate and unsympathetic Gardner, and this is not his usual heroic role. Young newcomer Jupe shines as the innocent Nicky, through whose eyes we see events unfold. Moore’s cold portrayal of a 50s housewife here is a bit shrill and not as involving or as committed as her turn in Todd Haynes’ Douglas Sirk-like 50s melodrama Far From Heaven. Isaac (from Rogue One, etc) is good as the suspicious insurance investigator whose presence throws a spanner in Gardner’s plans. Isaac’s insurance investigator role was actually intended for Clooney when the Coens were still attached to the project as directors.
The film is steeped in a 50s aesthetic thanks to the superb production design from James D Bissell, who has worked on five of Clooney’s films as a director. The layout of Gardner’s office is reminiscent of the design for the Coens’ earlier The Hudsucker Proxy. The film has a great visual look thanks to the work of Clooney’s regular cinematographer Robert Elswit (an Oscar winner for There Will Be Blood, etc), who has suffused the film in a deceptively warm palette that disguises the cold heart at the centre of the drama.