I wanted to write that I simply cannot believe that this movie flopped at the box office, received a tone of negative reviews and currently holds the rating of 5.4 at IMDb, but that would be a knee-jerk reaction. If you think about it, this outcome was the only one possible when you consider the plot and the narrative that Suburbicon brings to the table. A similar thing happened to Ziggy after the atrocities committed by all sides in WWI, his initial surprise turned into a rude awakening after which he lost faith in humanity (I simply cannot shake BBCs Century of Self). The critics list acting, plot and atmosphere of the movie as bad, ultimately blaming director George Clooney for almost everything.
In my opinion, he made a couple of mistakes, if they can be called that, with three of them being most noticeable: stories are not neatly connected (Gardner, Mayers, and Nicky), music was off and hints were a bit too visible. When compared to a movie as a whole, they lose their initial impact. Whether Clooney intended to make a movie like this is debatable, but one thing is sure, the issues and concepts that are explored here far outweigh the negative aspects. I think everybody was expecting a standard-issue Coen movie, that can be watched without considering the underlying concepts. Truly, if watched as just another random dark comedy, this movie does feel jumbled. Critics kept dissecting it, breaking down basic film-making and pointing out things that needed improvement. However, if you add the real meat of the movie, its true meaning, the outcome changes dramatically. So what do we have here then?
Suburbicon is a dark comedy with the usual Coen vibe. It is set in the year of our lord George Cloony 1969 in a peaceful, all-white neighborhood of Suburbicon. However, when a black family moves into the ‘burbs, the tension starts to mount. Their first neighbors are Lodge family, consisting of one father and husband Gardner, his wife Rose and finally their son Nicky. One night, two robbers break into their house and using chloroform knocks them all out. They wake up in a hospital, Gardner, and Nicky that is because Rose is in a deep coma induced by an overdose of chloroform. Soon she dies and this triggers one hell of a mess.
As I already said, Cloony did a really good job with this one. Surely, Coen’s movie would be better, but that did not happen, so there’s no point in mentioning it. Beautiful cinematography with those ultra-wide and colorful shots of the city created a dreamy atmosphere for the ridiculously violent story. One thing that really blew me away was the pacing. It was pitch-perfect and before I knew it, the movie was over. Once the ball starts rolling, it peaks up speed dramatically.
The acting was truly a bit off, but I think that this accentuated the very plot of the movie. Speaking of the plot, it could have been better, especially if they improved the interweaving of the separate stories. This is because the “racial” part of the movie was actually grafted onto one gruesome family affair (Coens wrote the script back in 1986). However, this decision was worth it. Moore and Damon were great, but young Noah Jupe stole the show here. Also, one of the robbers is played by none other than fucking Errol Childress from True Detective! Glenn Fleshler is one scary motherfucker.
At this point I recommend you check out this movie and then come back to this review because what follows will be increasingly filled with spoilers.
Let’s start with the title. This is a combination of two words suburbs and Rubicon, with the note that the latter should be interpreted as a part of Caesar’s crossing of river Rubicon. After this happened, he became a dictator and restructured Roman society into an imperialist one. This phrase usually symbolizes the point of no return. Not to presume too much, but perhaps this refers to the first migration of the American white population into racially segregated parts of the city. And here we have the first (out of three) element that pissed people off: racism.
Clooney really picked the time for this topic, with growing tensions and complex issues arising in the past few decades (first with Obama and now with Trump, although American society never actually dealt with racism). To make things worse, the incident is based on real events. What people didn’t like about the portrayal of racism in this movie is its scope. These were not isolated incidents with only a couple of participants, this was an endeavor in which large groups of people banded together for one purpose only: segregation. This period signifies the so-called “golden years” of American society, so to tarnish it with racism was a no-no.
After Rose was killed, Gardner slowly started to get back into his routine. I just loved this awkward part of the movie. All the people telling him they are sorry and saying nothing else. Fuck me, I am still laughing at this. Let’s analyze the shit out this one. Firstly, we must list the elements, here we have three: Gardner, people who are saying sorry for your loss and finally the underlying cause of this that penetrates much deeper than anyone would like to. It goes to the very foundations of our society and the way we perceive interactions with other human beings. What is hard to miss is the lack of “real” conversation, feelings or anything similar. They are all repeating the same phrases because “you should behave in a certain way” and “be polite” while “disruptively” real feelings are pushed down (until they are unleashed with devastating consequences). This is all part of the bigger narrative that emerged in the twenties and thirties.
The easiest comparison is the most controversial one: Nazi Germany. In Nazi ‘burbs, the same as in its German counterpart, there are a number of definable roles that you are allowed to play. And when I say play, I mean to live. Anything that deviates from the norm is considered alien and what is alien must be removed because it is not the part of a joint effort. In Germany’s case, it was the liberation of the fatherland, and in ‘burbs case it was the creation of puritan society. Puritan society draws people in because it provides answers to their fears and is just another variation of a tribal society. It sets the premise that if you have a limited number of constant elements, you are able to predict the outcome of their behavior in a positive way. This is the way that American society was set up in the early days with “enlightened” players controlling the masses by making them push their introspective results deep down and conforming to the norm.
Literally, every waking hour they are outside the house or home but with someone, people are not allowed to deviate from their designated roles, they are actually faking almost every action. However, if you are under emotional distress, the acting part gets harder and harder. Tension starts to build and then it is finally released in the uncontrollable fury devastating the very foundations of their way of life. This is why there must be a “logical” explanation for these transgressions that usually place the subjects outside the circle of “good people”. He was using drugs, he was gay, he’s a satanist or fell from god, all these are perfectly good explanations. This is the second element.
The third element comes in the final third of the movie with the reveal that Gardner not only hired the robbers to kill his wife, but he tried to get rid of her earlier with the car accident. This is what people don’t want to think about, that people are basically fucked up animals with these undefinable urges and drives making them do things that are incomprehensible. To admit that such an upstanding citizen could do that after he was acting extremely successfully for his entire life, jumping hurdles, repressing emotions and behaving in a way that the society prescribed is unthinkable and leads to another conclusion that’s even more frightening: it could happen to me too! Not only they are afraid they might flip out and do some unthinkable things, but they are also aware that the thoughts and urges are there, buried deep within their mind. They just choose to leave them there. To get back to those undefinable urges and drives, they are only undefinable because people do not want to define. Why they don’t want to do it is a complex issue that we will talk about some other time. If you’re looking to further explore the ‘burbs check out David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
Director: George Clooney
Writer: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen,George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Cast: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Karimah Westbrook, Noah Jupe, Tony Espinosa, Gary Basaraba, Glenn Fleshler
Fun Facts: Josh Brolin was cast in the movie as a baseball coach but his scenes ended up being removed after a test screening. George Clooney admitted that his scenes deflated the tension from the movie and felt badly to remove Brolin from the final cut as he considered the scenes one of the funniest in the entire picture.