Cast: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac
Director: George Clooney
Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Cinema is an art and the films that get made are inherently reflective of ourselves and the world we live in, which is why movies cannot help but be political and social constructs. Whether it’s done actively or passively, all movies are affected by the societies that shaped them and are indicative of the principles and values of their own time and place, whether it’s confirmation, opposition, indifference or ignorance. This applies whether it’s done well or badly and that brings me to Suburbicon. Clooney has been one of the most actively political American actors and directors of recent years and he has been successful in conveying his liberal beliefs in films such as Good Night, and Good Luck and The Ides of March. Here he tackles the difficult but important subject of race politics, a topic that has never seen much prominence in his filmography. Although I believe his intentions were honest and sincere, Clooney’s handling of the subject is problematic (to say the least).
Set in the 1950s, the film takes place in Suburbicon, a rural neighbourhood with a ‘diverse’ range of white residents. This peaceful community however is shaken up by the arrival of an African-American family who, despite being perfectly pleasant and agreeable people, are received with nothing but harassment, abuse, and scorn. So focused is everyone on their outrage against the Mayers family that nobody notices the dark dealings of the house adjacent to it, that of mild-mannered family man Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon). His house is broken into by two robbers, Sloan (Glenn Fleshler) and Louis (Alex Hassell), and he is taken captive along with his wife Rose (Julianne Moore) and son Nicky (Noah Jupe). Rose subsequently dies from an overdose of chloroform and so her twin sister Margaret (also Moore) steps in to help Gardner and Nicky rebuild their lives. Nicky however suspects that something strange is going on as his father and aunt start being suspiciously in the aftermath of the attack. His sentiments are shared by Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac), the insurance agent brought in to investigate their case. As the case becomes more complicated and messy, so does the conduct of the white supremacists terrorising the Mayers become more aggressive.
What we essentially have here are two parallel narratives which work neither as parallels nor as narratives. The intention, I imagine, is to put a spotlight on the twisted and evil deeds of white people that go unnoticed because everyone else is looking in the wrong direction due to blinding racial anger. That would be fine if Clooney was prepared to completely invest the film into the characters of the Mayers family and fully explore their plight, but he fails to do so. We never learn the first names of Mr. (Leith Burke) or Mrs. Mayer (Karimah Westbrook) and the film never illustrates their discernable personalities or inner lives to us. They are there to serve as symbols of the African-American community in Clooney’s satire of 1950s racism. By taking this approach there is an implication that this kind of behaviour is a thing of the past, that it isn’t still going on in Charlottesville and other similar places. That may not have necessarily been Clooney’s intention, but by portraying these events by way of parody and depicting the effects on the black family not through their own eyes but rather the eyes of the white main characters, I cannot help but find the movie’s treatment of racism to be outdated.
The other narrative, which Clooney adapted from an abandoned Coen Brothers screenplay, concerns Nicky and the increasingly precarious situation growing in his house. Clooney, despite being a frequent collaborator of the Coens, proves unequal to the task of replicating their unique black noir tone and has instead made a movie that is neither funny enough nor dramatic enough to make the material work. There is no energy in his direction or in Damon’s and Moore’s performances, and so the story unfolds at a steadily stale and stolid pace. Gardner and Margaret are both extremely unpleasant people, as is often the case with the Coen Brothers’ characters, but neither the director nor the actors can bring enough humour, appeal or life to make them at all enjoyable, relatable or memorable. Isaac does better as a shrewd investigator with an uncanny nose for bullshit, but not enough to save the film.
The movie is earnest and well-intentioned, but that just isn’t enough in 2017. This movie takes the real-life story of an African-American family who suffered the horrid persecution of white America and trivialises it. The event is distanced from the audience as a laughable relic of the past, it plays second fiddle to a far less interesting story, and its effects are felt not by the victims but by the white family next door. This kind of movie is patronising for black viewers and undemanding for white viewers. If a white filmmaker wants to take on the weighty subjects of racism, hypocrisy and white privilege, it’s not enough for them to acknowledge that they (white people) understand that these things exist, especially when the movie in question is the product of an industry historically and overwhelmingly dominated by white men. Movies like this need and demand to be more challenging, more inspired and more truthful. Suburbicon is the product of a filmmaker who either didn’t know or couldn’t decide what story he was trying to tell and it falls far too short of whatever good intentions he may have had.