By: Hawk Ripjaw (Four Beers) –
Suburbicon is every 1950s neighborhood: everyone knows the mailman, the supermarket is just down the street, the residential lanes and the houses the line them are perfectly symmetrical, and each and every citizen has the same idea of what the perfect life should be: all-white. The arrival of the Mayers, an African American family, startles and offends the rest of the neighborhood.
Directly behind them lives the Lodge family: Gardner (Matt Damon), his wheelchair-bound wife Rose (Julianne Moore), her twin sister Margaret (Julianne Moore), and his son Nicky (Noah Jupe). When two thugs break into their home one night resulting in the death of Rose, Margaret decides to move in. Nicky grows suspicious of his parent and aunt when Margaret dyes her hair to more closely resemble Rose, and she and Gardner begin discussing Rose’s life insurance money after neglecting to call out the thugs in a lineup. Something sinister is happening in Suburbicon, and it’s not the minorities living next door.
Suburbicon certainly isn’t short on style, and Clooney’s film draws influence from both neo-noir and from the long-abandoned idea of the perfect nuclear family setup in a neighborhood whose houses are indistinguishable from each other. The latter now elicits a certain sense of dread and artifice masking something sinister, which Clooney mostly gets right from the get-go. Matt Damon and Julianne Moore are as reliable as ever, but the real standouts are Noah Jupe as a child watching everything fall apart around him, and Oscar Isaac as an insurance claim investigator who knows exactly who he’s about to back into a corner. Particularly with Isaac, the movie comes alive in his brief moments onscreen and it’s here where everything feels like it works together. Unfortunately, the rest is almost fatally unfocused.
The rules of screenwriting credits are as such: if two or more writers have an ampersand connecting their names, it means that the writers wrote it together as a creative team. However, if one or more writers are separated by the word “and,” the latter writer came in to make edits after a first draft was completed by the former writer. This can often cause some weird and noticeable inconsistencies in the final script. With Clooney and collaborator Grant Heslov reworking the original Coen Brothers script, the finished product has exactly that feeling of two movies trying to occupy the same space.
This in turn leads to bigger issues with tone, as the spirit of a dark screwball comedy is consistently undermined by much more serious elements. As Clooney had promised, this is not a very funny movie. In fact, at many points it gets quite grim and sinister. That’s certainly not outside of the Coen wheelhouse, but the brothers almost always manage to drop quirky characters into grim situations and still make it fun. Suburbicon has a couple of quirky characters, but they have no harmony with the events of the movie in a way that would make it work. Instead, there are just really unpleasant things happening while characters that should be fun just feel muted or out of place.
Suburbicon’s biggest problem is its bizarre, largely unexplained decision to feature a subplot surrounding the town’s reaction to a black family moving in. Every few scenes, there’s another glimpse at the townspeople of Suburbicon, seemingly with nothing else to do other than yell and bang on drums outside the Mayers house all day and night.
This is supposed to be ironic: the entire town and even the news are preoccupied with the idea of a black family in the neighborhood while something actually sinister is going on in the house right behind them. But a topic as weighted as racial politics needs a consistent through-line in the narrative as a whole to be effective, and Suburbicon almost treats it like an afterthought. It’s an interesting idea to point out the tunnel vision people can get when confronted with a different skin color, but the way it’s shown in the movie just feels hopelessly grim rather than thematically effective.
On top of feeling like a faint knockoff of a Coen Brothers movie, Suburbicon is also frustratingly inconsistent in general. There are a handful of scenes that show that Clooney can be a talented director—primarily the two involving Isaac—but the rest don’t feel confident. There are two decent movies hiding in here, but they directly conflict, each tone constantly getting shortchanged to make room for the other. There’s a directly opposing caveat to nearly everything likeable about Suburbicon, which in a movie that eventually makes it very clear what it wants to do, is just disheartening when it so soundly fails to do it.
Suburbicon (2017) Movie Drinking Game
Do a Shot: for each death
Take a Drink: for every time the action switches back to the neighborhood protesting the new family
Take a Drink: for every dramatic music sting
Take a Drink: whenever someone apologizes for Rose’s death