In Suburbicon, director and co-writer Clooney and writers Joel and Ethan Coen, and Grant Heslov, set out to explore the underbelly of the titular late 1950s community. The suburbs have always been Gothic, the darkness behind (or below) the neat rows of houses was always there, hidden beneath the veneer. It lurks in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs (1989), and even Desperate Housewives, (sorry, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet doesn’t qualify; its location is the small town, the darkness of Frank Booth et al is geographically ‘elsewhere’, likewise most movies adapted from Stephen King books).
Among the rows of neatly manicured lawns, small houses, and clean streets, life in Suburbicon appears straight forward. The 1950s suburb is beautifully evoked in the film’s art design and opening sequence. To its post-war boomer inhabitants the community feels safe and happy, everyone wrapped up warmly in their smug sense of themselves, talking to the postman and making custard pies. Until a black family, the Meyers (Leith M Burke and Karimah Westbrook), move in and the all-white suburb erupts into racism. In the house bordering the rear of the Meyers’, lives Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), his wheelchair bound wife Nancy, her carer and twin-sister Margaret (Julianne Moore), and their son Nicky (Noah Jupe). But the veneer of this wholesome family is shattered one night when two robbers pay a visit.
These twin narratives are almost-linked through the vague friendship of each family’s sons, but ultimately the majority of the film focuses on the Lodges and a predicament that almost seems to echo the Coens’ more noir inspired works (watch out for the appearance of a VW Beetle, a nod to the brothers’ debut, Blood Simple). In part the story, which slips between uneasy comic tones and crime drama, echoes the brothers’ better thrillers – Suburbicon was apparently first written in 1986 immediately after Blood Simple – but it lacks the power of that work and the wry, witty intelligence of films such as Fargo.
While Clooney’s direction is efficient, the script lacks the necessary intensity, the cast – and Moore especially – deliver good performances, and as an ensemble piece the film is not without charm, but lacking the necessary narrative focus it becomes hard to care about the protagonists, and by the inevitable third act neither story climaxes with the necessary emotional power.
Suburbicon wants to say something about violence, about the darkness behind the twitching curtains, about the smiles that hide lies, about the fear of the outsider, about the motives that drive people, and about the undercurrent of the suburban dream of 1950s USA. But despite evoking the period through great design, the film just doesn’t live up to the sum of its parts.