Thursday, 2 November 2017

Movie Review: Suburbicon (2017)

I’ve been living in suburban neighbourhoods for pretty much my entire life. The mild isolation from living in a hidden-away culdesac, the golf course next door that insisted the family wore crash helmets when in the backyard, gossiping neighbours who go to prove that there are some high school patterns that some just don’t grow out of; I’ve seen my share of suburbia. Because of this, it’s little wonder to me that seemingly-innocent neighbourhoods are so often used not to show familial connection and comfort, but creeping dread. It all looks so nice and all the neighbours seem so nice… something’s wrong, isn’t there? Cynical as it is, this mindset has led to a lot of good stories, from the nostalgic reality check of Pleasantville to the unnerving voyeurism of Rear Window to the popcorn horror of Goosebumps. Today’s film, co-written by the Coen brothers and George “Hard Left Hook” Clooney, is cut from the same cloth. But how good is it in that capacity? Or any capacity? This is Suburbicon.

The plot: A black family has moved into the predominantly white neighbourhood of Suburbicon, right next door to the Lodge family, made up of father Gardner (Matt Damon), mother Rose (Julianne Moore), her twin sister Margaret, and their son Nicky (Noah Jupe). As the tension escalates in the community, and criminals putting pressure on the Lodges to pay up or else, Nicky slowly begins to realize that there is something seriously wrong going on close to home.

Damon as the high-strung father works decently, channelling some serious D-Fens vibes while delivering one of the film’s few real dramatic moments near the end. Moore just seems to be a perfect fit for dangerous 50’s nostalgia, between this and Kingsman: The Golden Circle, and her rather Stepford mother hits all the right marks for that character. Jupe is surprisingly strong as our focal point voice of innocence, nailing the quieter moments as well as keeping the insanity around him grounded. Not by much, but with a film like this, any effort is welcome. Jack Conley as the seemingly well-meaning policeman fills that role as well as can be expected, Gary Basaraba as Uncle Mitch is the rare good person in the cast, making his presence on-screen among the most effective just out of variety, Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell as two thugs that rough up the Lodge family are intimidating but not much else, and even though Oscar Isaac only gets two scenes (despite top billing), he is easily the best part of the entire film and shows a real sense of mocking fun that the rest of the production ends up lacking.

Suburban terror basically boils down to two elements, in terms of what needs to be done right: The terror itself and the sheen painted over it by the innocuous setting. In terms of the latter, credit where it’s due to director George Clooney and cinematographer Robert Elswit (Nightcrawler, Gold, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation) as this is a very nice looking film. It wears its late-50’s nuclear family fa├žade suitably enough, with all the period detail that goes with it, and the sunburnt and often moody film stock gives a definite impression that there is something wrong beneath the surface. Having Nicky as the central character helps with that, an age-old narrative trick to show the cruelty and compromise of the world through the eyes of a child, and his place in the story helps what few thematic elements that actually sink in do so properly.

The former, that being what exactly is wrong with this town, is made abundantly clear within moments of the film starting. In fact, not since Pleasantville have I seen commentary that is this obvious in terms of racial prejudice. Basically, it carries that same hard-left bent that most of Clooney’s recent output does, similar to Money Monster… except here, it actually has a point to it beyond just yelling at the audience about what it thinks. It most certainly does that, but there’s actual merit to what is being said. Through the regular intervention of Ira and Louis, the simmering racial conflict happening in the neighbourhood and even the outright grimness going on inside the Lodge household, the film ends up making a big painted target out of the white suburban landscape. The prevailing sense that no-one really wants to get involved in anything, more than readily blaming easy scapegoats (the blacks, the jews, the kids, etc.) rather than those actually at fault, and removing one’s self from a bad situation and let others take care of it; it all leads to the White Flight concept that gave birth to the suburbs in the first place. Add to that how pretty much every adult we see is connected to the passive-aggressive (and often flat-out aggressive) mentality that is keeping Suburbicon alive, hammered in by the involvement of Nicky, and the film has a real sneering edge to it that makes for great satire. Or, at least, it would.

George Clooney has done great work before. The Coen brothers, co-writers of this film’s script, have done great work before. Clooney and the Coen brothers have done great work together before. None of these will be immediately apparent once the messiness of the plot structure shows itself. There are three main plot threads running through the film: The investigation involving Rose’s death, the black family that moves into the neighbourhood, and the lingering threat posed by Ira and Louis. Even though these plots converge in various places, they never come together into a cohesive whole. Or, rather, it doesn’t feel like everything is being utilized enough to warrant being in this film. The plot involving Rose’s death and who may or may not be involved in it lacks anything resembling tension, even with the odd twist thrown in, and doesn’t end up leading to anything all that great… save for one of the climactic scenes, where Damon gets to flex some serious dramatic muscle. The black family moving in feels like it escaped another movie entirely, and when the film focuses so much on the seeming plight of the suburban white guy, it doesn’t have that great an impact. The pacing around said plot is good, showing an increasing sense of chaos and “time for you to move there, uh, Jefferson” as the film goes on, but it never makes it feel like it should be here other than to add more textual layers to the story. Where this gets weird is that, even with the disconnect within itself, the points that are made when they actually do connect are poignant and rather compelling.

All in all, this is a definite grower. It takes quite a bit of time to get over the blunt force agitprop at the heart of the story, as well as the middling details of said story, but between the pretty decent acting, the visual style and the fact that it actually has a point to make, however clumsily, it ends up working far better than it should. I’m not expecting to even remember this film in a week’s time, if even that far ahead, but for what it is, I feel like it was worth watching. It’s better than The Foreigner, which also has its moments of jarring disconnect between its plots, but this ultimately was more satisfying as an experience. A rather derivative experience, but one that felt worth taking. However, since it is as troubled as it is, it still falls short of the consistently brutal and harrowing Jackie.

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