Somewhere in Suburbicon is an interesting commentary on planned communities, race relations, and the quiet corruption of middle-class morals circa the late 1950s. And perhaps in the original screenplay that Joel & Ethan Coen wrote several years ago, a challenging, thought-provoking version of that story exists.
But in this version directed by George Clooney (Good Night, and Good Luck; The Ides of March; The Monuments Men), who also took a crack at reworking the script with his usual partner Grant Heslov, something gets hopelessly lost, perhaps because no one seems to be taking any of this all that seriously. Not that these subjects can’t be the stuff of darkly humorous satire, but let’s face it: you couldn’t ask for bigger targets than people who say things like “I don’t believe they should be persecuted; I just don’t want them living in my neighborhood”—or words to that effect.
Suburbicon begins with a murder. A man named Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) lives with his wife (Julianne Moore) and their son Nicky (Noah Jupe); the wife’s twin sister, Margaret (also played by Moore), is visiting them when a pair of thugs (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) break into their home, presumably to rob them, when they use too much chloroform on the wife, accidentally (we assume) causing her death. It’s decided almost immediately that since she’s there already, the aunt will move in (the boy needs a mother, after all).
Now, if any of this sounds suspicious, that’s because it is, and (I promise this isn’t a spoiler) we find out very early on that Gardner had a hand in his wife’s death. Everything that happens from that point forward is a series of stupid and careless mistakes from people who have no idea what being a criminal actually entails.
Unfortunately, right before the murders, the Suburbicon community’s first black family moves in, a change that shakes up every corner of this still-growing ‘burb. It begins with sour, sideways glances, but before long, they are being openly tormented by neighbors standing just outside their property lines day and night causing as much noise as they can. Refusing to buckle to pressure or even react, the family goes about their daily routine as best they can under the circumstances. Even the pre-teen son makes friends with the kids who lives behind them, including Nicky Lodge. But when Mrs. Lodge is murdered, suddenly neighbors suspect that the black family has somehow brought in a bad element to this once-safe town.
It’s as ridiculous as it is ugly.
The investigation goes on, first by the ineffective police, who seem more concerned with the new family than a stone-cold murder, and then by an insurance investigator, played by Oscar Isaac, providing the one actual bright spot of the movie. From his devious look to his fast-talking manner, Isaac’s Roger is a classic Coen brothers character—smart, but not as smart as he thinks; greedy; not so much interested in solving a murder as he is turning it to his advantage; and, of course, cocky to the point of being careless.
Like many great films by the Coens, Suburbicon puts the audience in the unique position of knowing more than any one character. The reason we can often see things coming is because we’re the only ones in possession of all the facts, so it becomes less about the mystery and more about the jittery anticipation. And the two extended scenes with Isaac nail this format beautifully.
As Gardner attempts to cover up and pile lie on top of lie to hide his crimes, his entire world spirals into a bloody mess. And while that tension steadily rises and gets out of control, the hysteria at the neighbor’s home turns into an all-out riot (apparently this section of the film is based on true events), with burning cars and confederate flags thrown into the mix while the police try half heartedly to control the crowds. These two simultaneous events blend together, and as much as I wanted to connect the two incidents, my brain wouldn’t let me. They aren’t the same; not even close. And the effort made to connect seems futile, bordering on insulting.
Suburbicon’s overall problem is empathy. I didn’t care about any of the Lodge family members, not even the innocent Nicky, who is quickly seen as liability in his father and aunt’s collective eyes. Military school is contemplated for him, but more drastic measures may be necessary. That, combined with underwritten roles for the black family members (I’m fairly certain the father doesn’t even get any lines, which may be deliberate, but it feels neglectful), and the fact that EVERY SINGLE PERSON in the massive community is a hot-blooded racist really doesn’t give us a lot of room to grow as a people.
In the end, I not only found the movie subpar, but it quickly becomes unpleasant.