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Non-Review Review: Suburbicon

Suburbicon is a disjointed mess of a feature film. It is a gonzo black comedy that never quite coalesces, but sustains itself with enough energy that it never completely falls apart.

Suburbicon is a bizarre hybrid. Watching the movie, one gets a sense that the film has been stitched together from two core stories. Indeed, this was very much the case; the central plot of Suburbicon was original written by the Coen Brothers as a grotesque comedy of murder and mayhem, while the movie’s prominent subplot was grafted on later by director George Clooney and collaborator Grant Heslov to add a sense of social realism to this late fifties Americana. These two elements never quite cohere, which means Suburbicon never feels truly focused.

Stress testing.

There is a telling moment around half-way through the film, when an insurance investigator has stopped by the family residence at the heart of the story. Investigating a suspicious claim, the gentleman is clearly fishing. “In the end,” he reflects philosophically, “it all comes down to one word.” Without any elaboration, he allows his mind to wonder and the conversation to drift. He only returns to that  train of thought when guided by his interviewee. “What is it?” they ask. He is lost. “What?” They clarify, “The word?” The investigator takes a moment to get back on track.

That small conversational aside captures what is most appealing and most infuriating about Suburbicon, a movie that lacks a strong core and finds itself caught between two very different stories without any strong focus on either. Suburbicon is never boring, packed with strange turns and driven by a pitch black sense of humour. However, it never seems entire sure of what it is.

Cycles of violence.

There are two stories at the heart of Suburbicon. The first originated with the Coen Brothers, and focuses on the Lodge family. Gardner Lodge is a homeowner in the eponymous surburban environment, who appears to have found himself on the wrong side of a bargain with the devil. He finds his family under threat from certain characters of ill-repute, with the story largely filtered through the prism of his young son Nicky.

This aspect of Suburbicon plays to Clooney’s stylistic interests in classic Hollywood. In particular, there is a lot of Hitchcock in terms of how Clooney approaches the story of the Lodge family, with something perverse and grotesque taking root in a seemingly normal family. Clooney plays into the Hitchcock references; the film features a replacement blonde, a fascination with suffocation, effective use of silhouettes, a number of acts of shocking brutality captured from unconventional angles, and a number of scenes where swinging lights cast shadows over actors’ faces.

Julianne Moore showed up straight from the set to Kingsman II.

Perhaps Clooney’s most Hitchcockian touch, beyond the ice-cold blonde and her twin or the psycho-sexual energy simmering beneath the surface, is the use of metronomes throughout the film. Clooney tends to set his scenes to a rhythm and a beat, a tempo occasionally observed by an item within a shot in order to build tension; the stress relief tools that Gardner uses in his office, a toy in the aquarium during an awkward father-son chat, even a swinging light bulb as two characters discuss murder most foul.

In terms of plotting, the Gardner Lodge story fits comfortably within the moral framework of the Coen Brothers’ output, where a seemingly small moral transgression creates chaotic ripples of violence and brutality. The violence in Suburbicon is short and sharp, but often immaculately foreshadowed and set up. Clooney allows his camera to linger on small details in order to set up pay-offs that arrive later in the film. The characters in Suburbicon consider themselves prepared for any eventuality, only for their plans to backfire and complicate matters further. Irony abounds.

All fired up.

Suburbicon very clever anchors all of this through Nicky, the youngest member of the Lodge family. Like Nicky, the audience is thrown into this plot on the deep end, and asked to make sense of what is happening. A lot of the plot of Suburbicon is filled in backwards, suggested through revelations and knowing glances. The plot itself is thin, although the audience finds itself in the position of Nicky, piecing together the puzzle little by little.

However, the puzzle never quite comes together, if only because Clooney and Heslov decide to throw a completely different disassembled jigsaw into the mix. Drawing on real-life historical events, Clooney chooses to juxtapose the collapse of the Lodge family with the arrival of the Mayers family. Their decision to move into the neighbourhood causes chaos, being the first black family to live in Suburbicon. Their white neighbours take this development with as much grace and open-mindedness as one might expect given the time period in question.

Squeaky clean.

This plot is rooted in reality. More than that, it is very clearly of interest to Clooney as a director. Clooney is intrigued with social history, as demonstrated by his work on Goodnight and Good Luck. Clooney has a fascination with the culture of mid-century America, particularly its repressive cultural norms. As such, the Mayers family are interesting subjects for Clooney, an opportunity to explore the oft-overlooked racial aspects of the move into the suburbs following the Second World War.

However, there are several problems created by the decision to juxtapose the Lodge storyline with the Mayers plot. The most obvious is that the Mayers family is never allowed to develop or grow. Suburbicon never offers the audience any real sense of who these people are, or what they want. They are archetypes rather than characters, defined primarily by the colour of their skin and by the reaction of their neighbours. Suburbicon feels almost exploitative in its handling of these characters.

Sweet child of mine.

To be fair, this complaint cuts both ways. Suburbicon spends a lot more time with the Lodge family, but constantly cutting between the two stories creates a disconnect. Every time that it seems like the audience might make a connection with Gardner Lodge, the movie cuts back to the social crises unfolding across the neighbourhood. In theory, it’s an interesting way to approach a story about lives in suburbia, but the two threads never quite click.

Indeed, it is often hard to make sense of what Clooney is saying about the overlap between the Lodge family and the Mayers clan. The two story threads move in parallel in terms of pacing and plot, with both simmering awkwardly for about fifty minutes before they both escalate to a horrific crescendo. Both the Lodges and the Mayers face a reckoning over the course of Suburbicon, but the movie never quite explains why it chose to tell these two stories in parallel. (Perhaps because the two houses are connected; but that is a writing conceit, not a justification.)

What a bloody mess.

Is the audience supposed to sense a thematic connection between the black comedy befalling the Lodge family and the earnest social history lesson focusing on the Mayers family? Is so, what connection? The Lodge family is ultimately revealed to be collapsing under Gardner’s moral weakness, while the Mayers family find themselves victims of social prejudice. Is the audience supposed to juxtapose the two stories, to see them as oppositional narratives? If that is the case, they line up too readily in terms of pacing and drama.

To give an example of how muddled the thematics are, Nicky Lodge spends most of the movie trying to protect himself from outside forces. He puts a wooden block up on his door to keep him safe as he sleeps at night, he watches his father from the landing and through the keyhole. It would make sense to reflect that by focusing on the Mayers family, looking at how they protect themselves from their neighbours. However, Suburbicon spends more time listening to the neighbours complain about trying to protect themselves, even erecting fences to quarantine the Mayers family.

Family valuables.

It is quite clear that Clooney aligns with the Mayers family, but his decision to marginalise them within their own narrative means that Suburbicon seems to compare Nicky’s awkward attempts to protect himself from unwelcome intruders to the measures taken by the white families to “protect” their community from the arrival of an African Americna family. This is very clearly not the comparison that Clooney wants to make, but it is the connection that the movie seems to make in how it chooses to tell these two stories in parallel.

Suburbicon never figures out how to properly pair these two stories, which creates a weird disconnect that undercuts both stories. Even narratively, there are points when this overlap makes it difficult to follow the movie’s internal logic. After Nicky Lodge goes out to play with Andy Mayers, the Lodge family finds itself attacked by outside forces in a scene that unfolds from Nicky’s perspective. It almost seems like Nicky is being punished for breaking social mores, when Gardner is being punished for his own transgressions.

Insure thing.

Still, there is a lot within Suburbicon that works. The movie has an endearingly bleak sense of humour, one that mixes good comic timing with a potent sense of malice. As with a lot of stories about suburbia, Suburbicon treats most of its adult characters with a mixture of contempt and fascination, and the results are strangely compelling. In particular, Oscar Isaac steals a handful of scenes in the role of a sleazy insurance investigator, playing the part originally intended for Clooney.

However, there are any number of delightfully gonzo beats as the action spirals out of control. Suburbicon has a warped sense of humour, and cruelly unleashes it upon its central characters. There are any number of clever juxtapositions and subversions, clever set-ups that pay-off in unintended ways. Suburbicon works best when it embraces its meanest self, revelling in the poetic justice and divine reckoning unleashed upon its denizens.

Morally flexible.

Suburbicon does not work, but it has enough of a manic energy that it sustains itself. The result is a film that is not necessarily good, but is undoubtedly fascinating and compelling.

 

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