Venice Film Festival: Suburbicon

Venezia 74
Written by Joel & Ethan Coen, George Clooney and Grant Heslov
Directed by George Clooney
Starring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe and Oscar Isaac
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by Richard Hamer

My opinion of Suburbicon solidified after reading that the Coen Brothers originally wrote the script in 1986, right after their debut feature Blood Simple. While they would have worked on it since then, something of that fact still speaks volumes to me. Suburbicon feels like a rejected first draft of Fargo: an unearthed bit of old Coen Brothers curio, with some socio-political subtext glued to the sides to give it a sleek, new look.

Set in the 1950’s in the idyllic community of Suburbicon, a pair of hoodlums brutally invade the home of Margaret and Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon and Julianne Moore); an act of violence seemingly motivated by the Lodges having shown friendship to the black family next door. In the process, Margaret is killed, leaving Gardner, his son and his sister-in-law (also played by Julianne Moore) to pick up the pieces. This being the Coen Brothers, things are of course not what they seem: events quickly spiral into a complex game of murder, blackmail and betrayal, involving the police, organised crime and one especially oily insurance investigator, played by Oscar Isaac…

…And all of that is just fine. The problem with Suburbicon is it all just feels so played out: movies uncovering the dark heart of the 50’s American dream are so frequent that they stretch back to the 50’s, and ‘small-town crime gone wrong’ has been done more times than I can think of, often by the Coen Brothers. Director George Clooney does mostly good, steady work with this: he’s been in enough Coen Brothers movies to know the score, and the comic portrayals of grizzly violence are handled well. Suburbicon gets some good – but not memorable – laughs out of the material.

Far more problematic is the sub-plot of racial tension that runs through the film. The plight of the Meyer family – the black couple next door – and the violence inflicted upon them by the community, is treated as less of a story, and more of a series of vignettes to juxtapose against the main action. That the Meyer family themselves have virtually no dialogue – reduced to the backdrop of another story, or even worse a thematic allegory divorced from any reality – raises questions of taste and purpose I don’t think this movie is capable of answering. In its effort to find artistic relevance, where perhaps light comedy would have sufficed, Suburbicon strays close to meaningless parody, throwing around incendiary imagery without clear purpose.

Even if one were to put that aside (and I absolutely understand that not being possible for many), the overriding sensation of Suburbicon is one of ennui: it’s a decent crime caper, but one the Coens never filmed themselves, having largely moved on from this sort of material. Perhaps Clooney could have taken a few moments to consider why.


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