George Clooney directs this entertaining, well-cast film-noir tale of crime rippling through the peaceful 1959 town of Suburbicon.
Based on a script by Joel and Ethan Coen that is heavily reminiscent of Fargo (1996), although lacking the freshness and subtle humour which made both the film and TV series so distinct. The setting they explore is the white-picket fences of American suburbia and what lies behind the picture-perfect facade of these communities.
Suburbicon opens with an animated promotional video introducing the audience to this tranquil, idyllic community town that appears to celebrate “diversity” by attracting families from all over the United States. The satirical tone is quickly established by the subsequent scene portraying the reaction from the community to a new black family, The Mayers, who move into the neighbourhood. This prompts a meeting at town hall where the fear for their safety and anticipated drop in property value, sparks a civil rights debate as the crowd angrily express their right to live in a white-only community.
The Mayers’ storyline however is largely reduced to the background with the social commentary and scenes of escalating racial violence left to be played out in transitional scenes. It is across their backyard where the Lodge family live, where the main action takes place as their lives are thrown into turmoil after a home invasion.
Matt Damon reunites with George Clooney after starring in his previously directed film, The Monuments Men (2014), and plays the head of the household, Gardner Lodge. He appears to be a typical Suburbicon resident living with his wheelchair bound wife, Rose (Julianne Moore), his pre-teen son, Nicky (Noah Jupe) and supportive sister-in-law, Margaret (cleverly, also played by Julianne Moore).
In the middle of the night their home is invaded by two sleazy men with unclear motives. The family is tied up and then knocked out with chloroform, which results in the death of frail Rose. The events are portrayed through the eyes of young Nicky, as he struggles to come to terms with the sudden loss of his mother and deal with his father’s surprisingly calm and contained response. He faces further turmoil when Margaret moves into their home to replace his mother. It is only when he witnesses an excellently staged scene with Gardener and Margaret failing to correctly identify the culprits in a police line-up that Nicky begins to wonder if the true culprits responsible for the crime could be in his own house.
It is from this point on in the film, that in true Coen-fashion and in a similar vein to Burn After Reading (2008) and Fargo, that Gardener’s venture into crime leads to escalating and deadly costs for all of those involved. The film becomes a dark comedy as we watch a series of terrible events carried out by seemingly ordinary people as their plots spiral out of control.
Clooney has assembled an excellent cast who are highly entertaining to watch as they scheme and squirm their way through the film as their plans begin to fall apart. Julianne Moore has fun with her dual roles and excels as she slowly unveils Margaret’s true motives, hiding behind the polished facade of the perfect perky 1950’s homemaker.
Of most interest here is Clooney and the Coens’ portrayal of the events through Nicky, who is brilliantly portrayed by Jupe. His growing fears are visible as he slowly pieces together the truth about his family and surrounding world. Notable praise should be directed at Oscar Isaac, whose small role as an insurance claim investigator adds a sense of danger and perfectly timed wit into his two brief scenes in the film.
Along with his stellar cast, Clooney has assembled an outstanding team behind the camera. Cinematographer Robert Elswit’s visuals maximise the direct contrast between the sunny suburban community and the darkness that it’s hiding. This is complimented by the exceptional production and costume design to establish the look and feel of typical mid-Western 1950’s America.
While the story certainly achieves sizeable laughs, Suburbicon lacks the subtle, dark comedic style which the Coen brothers made famous with Fargo. The racial sub-plot feels like a wasted opportunity and completely unconnected to the main storyline. There is however enjoyment to be had watching these colourful characters invite chaos into their suburban utopia, as we are introduced to ‘Suburbicon, a town of great wonder and excitement with the promise of prosperity for all!’
George Clooney screened this film for famed television writer/producer Norman Lear, no stranger to projects tackling explosive or controversial themes like his series All in the Family. After viewing the movie, Lear told Clooney “This is the angriest film I’ve ever seen.”