Mark Reviews Movies

Suburbicon

SUBURBICON

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: George Clooney

Cast: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac, Gary Basaraba, Glenn Fleshler, Alex Hassell, Tony Espinosa, Jack Conley, Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke

MPAA Rating: R (for violence, language and some sexuality)

Running Time: 1:44

Release Date: 10/27/17


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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 27, 2017

On one level, it's easy to tell what Suburbicon is trying to say, with its separate stories of racial prejudice and cold-blooded murder in a sleepy little suburb. At least, it seems easy. The point seems to be that an entire town is so busy with their suspicions of the new African-American family that moves into the seemingly idyllic place called Suburbicon that they don't even notice the mess happening with and/or to their white neighbors.

It's a subversive conceit, if that actually is the point. That it's not entirely clear whether or not that is the point is a bit of a problem. The screenplay is credited to two separate pairs of writers: Joel and Ethan Coen, as one half of the quartet, and director George Clooney and Grant Heslov, as the other. It's usually foolish to try to divine which screenwriter or screenwriters were responsible for which parts of a given movie, but there definitely seems to be a clear divide here.

On the one hand, we have a twisty, sometimes demented story of murder, fraud, and shady dealings with the mob. On the other, we have a vague, underdeveloped story of social conscience, involving the underlying racism of a tight-knit community that comes raging to the surface as soon as the racial demographics of the community shift by a percentage point or less. Let's just say that it's not difficult to figure out which half of the writing team likely had more influence over the first tale.

Either of these stories could have worked on their own, but combined, we're left grasping for a reasonable idea of how they connect. It has to be a subversive take on the prejudice of America in the late 1950s, with the crimes of the white population being ignored or allowed to happen, simply because of the townsfolk's certainty that—despite having no evidence for the notion—it's the new residents who are going to cause the problems.

Almost everyone in town is guilty of something or other, basically, except for the new townsfolk, who decide to put on strong faces as their neighbors stand outside their home at all hours of the day and night. They offer dirty stares, bang on drums and metal cookware, sing songs, and yell for the new residents to leave. By the time the murder plot comes to a head, the other story does, too, in a localized riot of vandalism and destruction. The two stories are clearly connected, but we're left with only a vague idea of how.

There's also the fact that the story of small-town murder and conspiracy takes up a significant portion of the movie. In it, Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) and his family are terrorized one night by a pair of home invaders (played by Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell). At first, we're led to believe that it has something to do with the fact that Gardner's wife Rose (Julianne Moore), along with her sister Margaret (also Moore), encouraged their son Nicky (Noah Jupe) to play with the new neighbors' son Andy (Tony Espinosa). The crime turns out to be isolated from the racial tensions, though, and much more in line with a familiar noir plot.

This means some twisted fun, especially with the appearance of Bud, an insurance claims investigator, who's played by Oscar Isaac as the kind of character for whom you really wish the movie had a larger role. The moment Isaac appears on screen, he dominates the movie with a performance that transforms the entire tone of the material. There's a glimmer of knowing mischief in his delivery, as if he has been let on to a secret about how the script is supposed to be played—one to which the other actors haven't been privy.

Damon and Moore (whose performance becomes a singular one early into the story) play it straitlaced, as if the material is as deathly serious as the result of the home invasion. It's clearly not, though, considering how inept and poorly thought out the conspiracy actually is. Clooney doesn't seem either to have much control over or to possess a clear concept about the movie's tone, which shifts wildly depending on which story is being told and from which perspective we're seeing things.

It really leaves the Meyers family—the new neighbors—without much to do. Their presence is vital, although Mrs. Meyers (Karimah Westbrook) isn't even afforded a first name (Most of her role is left to being shouted at and humiliated in the local grocery store), while Mr. Meyers (Leith M. Burke) is practically speechless until his home is under attack. What's the point of exposing all of this racism if the targets of it aren't even allowed much more than a word on the subject?

The family is basically a scapegoat for the rest of the town's significant flaws—from the crimes within the Lodge household to the race-based animosity of everyone else. That might be why Suburbicon feels so unclear in its purpose: It superficially may be telling two stories, but it does not have two, equal points of view.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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