Suburbicon

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.

★★

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Hail, Caesar!

Cast: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum

Directors: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen


This latest offering by the Coen brothers is one that harkens back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, a time before television when film was the single most popular form of daily entertainment. The studios were titans, the movies were phenomena and the actors were gods. The film’s 1951 setting marks a time when this age of glitz, glamour and glory was nearing its end following a decision by the US Supreme Court to abolish the studio system and end the monopoly of the ‘Big Five’. Cinema approached an age of uncertainty with the adoption of TV on the rise, as was the fear of Communism and McCarthyism. Many of the films Hollywood made at this time were escapist fantasies from majestic westerns like The Searchers to dazzling musicals like Singin’ in the Rain to biblical epics like The Ten Commandments. This age of disenchantment, paranoia and frivolity, all based around the movies, is the perfect setting for a Coen brothers movie.

The film follows a day in the life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Hollywood ‘fixer’ whose job it is to preserve the public image of Capitol Pictures and its stars. When Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the studio’s biggest production ‘Hail, Caesar!’ is kidnapped and held for ransom, it becomes Eddie’s job to recover him without the press finding out. Along the way he must also deal with such problems as the pregnancy of Deanna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), a celebrated actress who remains unmarried, and the grievances of the esteemed director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) who finds working on his period drama with the inept Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) impossible. Mannix is also offered a job by an airline company, a prestigious job with better pay that would allow him more time with his family, and must decide what working for the studio really means to him.

I’m a little stumped by Hail, Caesar! The Coen brothers have never been ones to opt for simple, conventional narratives and their off-beat, eccentric style has always been liable to throw some viewers off at first. However I couldn’t help but feel lost while watching this film. I was definitely entertained by it but, when it was over, I was left wondering what had actually happened and what it was all for. The stars whose roles amounted to little more than cameos, the stories that were left unresolved, the outlandish plot developments; all of these had me wondering what on earth Joel and Ethan Coen were thinking as they made this film. However I must remind myself that these concerns are also present in The Big Lebowski which is by all means a great movie. The Coen brothers are two quality filmmakers whose work has proven to be largely consistent (with a couple of exceptions) and are therefore entitled to a certain degree of trust and faith.

Faith. Based on the closing monologue to ‘Hail, Caesar!’ (the movie within the movie), faith seems to be the idea behind it all. Faith in an institution, faith in an ideology, faith in a greater being; these are all featured prominently in the film. The protagonist Eddie is an earnest, well-meaning, god-fearing man whose work often requires him to do things that weigh heavily on his conscience. Every night he unloads his sins onto his confessor, looking for direction and reassurance. In other words he is suffering from a crisis of faith. Brolin is excellent in this role. I think the reason I felt perplexed though is that the film felt bloated to me. There is so much going on in this movie on top of Eddie’s story that the central point kind of gets lost in the middle of it all. Layered storytelling is nothing new to the Coen brothers but the film’s larger purpose usually remains prevalent through it all. Here it just seems like the story took a backseat to the comedy, characters and homages.

With that said, the comedy, characters and homages are all splendid. The film’s recreation and parody of Golden-Age Hollywood is spot on and was a constant pleasure to behold. Standouts as well as Brolin include Clooney as the oblivious and impressionable movie star, Ehrenreich as the hopelessly miscast actor and Tilda Swinton as a pair of twin sisters who run rival gossip columns. There is also a one-off appearance by Frances McDormand that is pure gold. The movies featured within this film pay tribute to many of Hollywood’s classic tropes including the stylised looks, the song and dance numbers and the large and extravagant sets. ‘Hail, Caesar!’ itself is basically a reimagined Ben-Hur. The comedy jumps between satire and farce and leads to some hysterical moments, one of the best being Laurentz’s futile attempts to direct a refined performance out of Doyle.

After watching about half a dozen Coen films before this, I’ve reached a theory that they all follow one central theme: shit happens, and it happens for no reason. This is why I think their films often end without reaching a definitive resolution, because you cannot resolve chance. These is no blatant deliberation to their stories, they are just a string of events that simply happened. In the end, when it’s all over, life goes on. What I think sets Hail, Caesar! apart though and prevents it from attaining greatness is that the larger point it wants to make gets buried underneath the multitude of stories and characters that, while entertaining, lack depth. One of the things I love about Fargo is that it always feels like there is something larger at stake in the film’s conflict and that all of the characters, including the minor ones, have a purpose. Hail, Caesar! simply doesn’t have enough of that. What it does have is an ensemble of entertaining characters, great comedy and a wonderful retrospective of classic Hollywood.

★★★★

Bridge of Spies

Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Matt Charman, Joel Coen, Ethan Coen


In a year that has seen the release of many spy thrillers from Kingsman to Mission: Impossible to Spectre, Spielberg has created one of a very different kind. Instead of gadgets, stunts and explosions this film opts for an altogether more subtle, ambiguous and ominous tone as it builds its tension and suspense. The Cold War marks a frighteningly uncertain time in history when the threat of a nuclear war between two colossal nations was all too real and all it would take to set it off was a single mistake. Spielberg taps into this prospect by depicting a negotiation for an exchange between the Soviets and the USA where a single misstep could result in the deaths of the negotiators or of the subjects being negotiated. The history of war, diplomacy and espionage is Spielberg’s bread and butter and so what he crafts here is a suspenseful thriller in the way that only he could have made it.

When the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is caught by the American government, the task of representing him in a court of law falls onto James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks). Donovan is a principled man with strong morals and so he feels compelled to give this man the defence to which he is entitled despite the backlash it inspires. As this is happening Francis Powers (Austin Stowell) an American U2 spy plane pilot, is shot down and captured by the Soviets. It then becomes Donovan’s job to travel to Berlin and negotiate the exchange of Abel for Powers. These negotiations prove difficult and dangerous for Donovan especially when he takes it upon himself to include an American student who was arrested by the East Germans in the deal. Tensions rise and grow more palpable as the three parties involved continue to dispute each other over a deal that could blow up at any second and could even escalate into something much more serious.

As opposed to the Second World War which inspired mass destruction, chaotic battles and brutal deaths, the Cold War inspired a different sort of terror. The fear, from the American viewpoint, came from the uncertain nature of the enemy, the ever-present threat of a weapon that could cause global destruction and the oppressive state of such places as East Germany. This wasn’t a world where people died, it was a world where people disappeared and were never heard from again. It is no easy task to convey that sort of dread and despair in a film but it is one at which Spielberg masterfully succeeds. Through the use of expert cinematography, production design and music, the film is able to portray a cold and harsh world where the situation of any given person is consistently uncertain and where everyone’s actions are driven by a foreboding and constant tension that has yet to yield. Spielberg however, being who he is, allows hope and valour to break in at certain points and to ultimately triumph in the film’s conclusion. Bridge of Spies is rich in its atmosphere and tone and allows for an exhilarating viewing experience.

The task of carrying this film falls onto Spielberg’s frequent collaborator Tom Hanks who shines in a role tailor-made for him. Donovan is driven by a strong conviction for justice and fairness and refuses to compromise as much as an inch. He is asked to defend a man the entire country wants to send to the electric chair and resolutely stands up for his client’s liberty and rights. He comes to Berlin to negotiate the freedom of one man and instead fights adamantly for two. At the end of the film when we are given a post-script on what happened to Donovan following his time in Berlin, the story that is provided is one that summarises this character perfectly. My favourite performance in the film however was provided by Mark Rylance who stole every single scene he was in. His simple and unassuming manner made for a wonderfully understated performance that spoke volumes in surprisingly little screen time. Abel faces a disheartening prospect where the number of possible positive outcomes in severely limited. Nevertheless he faces it in such a calm and unperturbed way that I found myself rooting for him.

There is no doubt that Spielberg is a master director but, in his post-Saving Private Ryan career, I always felt that his work as a director suffered from a lack of innovation and inspiration and thought that he ought to consider retiring in order to preserve his legacy. With this film however, and Lincoln before it, I am glad to have been proven wrong. Bridge of Spies is a moody and fascinating film with ominous undertones and masterful performances and direction. There are times when I think Spielberg’s tropes are perhaps a bit too heavy-handed and occasions when the film gets a bit preachy and idealistic for my liking but these are little more than nit-picks. Bridge of Spies is an excellent drama that delivers its suspense and thrills in a way unlike any other spy film released this year and is a fine addition to Spielberg’s filmography.

★★★★★