By Preston Wilder
Glen in Raising Arizona – a film written by the Coen brothers – told a joke which he claimed was a “way-homer”, meaning you only got it on the way home. Suburbicon – a film co-written by the Coen brothers – is also a way-homer, its point so elusive it’s likely to be argued over in the car after watching it. Trouble is, it’s such a flat, cacophonous movie that you’re unlikely to want to dwell on it; worst of all, even if you make a concerted effort to tease out its central metaphor, it’s entirely possible that there’s nothing much to tease out, beyond the obvious.
The setting is Suburbicon, generic 1950s suburbia, its placid good cheer and bland conformity suddenly upended by the arrival of a black family – but the film too is suddenly upended, its race-relations lesson morphing, with startling abruptness, into a home-invasion thriller. The family whose home gets invaded are the Lodges; we’ve already met little Nicky (Noah Jupe), his mother Rose (Julianne Moore) who’s in a wheelchair following a car accident, and Aunt Margaret (also Moore), Rose’s twin sister who lives with them. That fateful night, when two thugs break into the house, is when we also meet paterfamilias Gardner (Matt Damon) – a nice touch, as if embroiling him directly in the darkness and away from the life of the family.
What ensues owes a lot to the Coens’ Fargo – but the difference is that, even as the main plot unfolds, the film keeps glancing over the fence at the Meyers, the black family, who are facing a storm of blatant harassment and racism. One keeps expecting the two strands to dovetail, but they don’t; instead, it seems clear that what happens to the Lodges – Rose gets killed in the home invasion; her husband and sister may be implicated – must be linked on some deeper level with what happens to the Meyers. But how?
To be honest, I’m not really sure. One likely reading is that the family are being used as a metaphor for the neighbourhood, both of them self-destructing as they sink into violence. The notion of sameness is a frequent theme – most obviously in the twin sisters, so Margaret is literally killing ‘herself’, but also for instance when Gardner and the thugs (whom he dismisses as “animals”) unconsciously use the same language, calling someone “a liability” – and what, after all, is racism if not a denial of our basic sameness? Another intriguing detail is that Gardner may be motivated partly by guilt (he was driving the car when Rose had her accident) – just as white America’s animus towards African-Americans is also, arguably, a function of repressed guilt over slavery.
It’s always fun trying to unpack a film; that’s why second viewings were invented, to catch all the clues you missed the first time. Alas, Suburbicon isn’t a movie you’d expect many people to want to watch twice, being over-emphatic and surprisingly low on witty dialogue. At its best, the film channels Parents, the 80s horror classic about a kid who discovers his parents doing awful things while he’s asleep; Suburbicon has a similar, otherwise-irrelevant scene of Nicky witnessing some kinky goings-on in the basement – and director George Clooney crafts a couple of excellent moments when the boy’s suspicions are aroused during a police line-up, then later in the car going home. The film gets weaker in the second half when it abandons the child’s point of view – but in fact it’s weak in general, sinking into ugliness and unpleasantness, Clooney never finding that subtle emphasis which would bring the whole thing into focus.
What does that leave? Production design, certainly: all those lovely 50s details – lime-green office chairs, lighting fixtures that look like Masonic symbols, little boys in striped T-shirts, signs advertising Ovaltine. Also a strain of dark humour, whether it’s the very Coens-ish, hilariously brusque police detective who thinks ‘Lodge’ is a Jewish name or the cheeky deconstruction of that very iconic American snack, the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich and glass of milk. Oscar Isaac isn’t bad either, underused as a wily claims investigator who mistrusts coincidence in real life – though he concedes that “it happens in opera a lot.”
Suburbicon moves briskly and looks quite striking; editor Stephen Mirrione and cinematographer Robert Elswit are both Oscar winners, and among the best in the business. On paper, this should be among the top films of the year. Instead it’s a disappointment, an attempted grand statement that falls short on every level – but of course it’s still relevant, illustrating the hypocrisy behind white America’s Puritan ethic. Gardner packs off Nicky to military school for his own good, to learn “discipline” (when in fact he just wants to be rid of him), just as the suburbanites say the “Negroes” have to “better themselves” before integration can happen (when in fact they just don’t want them). You don’t have to be on your way home to get that one.
DIRECTED BY George Clooney
STARRING Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac
US 2017 104 mins