Updated: Feb 5, 2020
Suburbicon opens with a clever, storybook-style, advertisement for its titular 1950s community. It is presented as a lovely place for families from all over the country to come and live. This is immediately followed by a scene showing the shocked reaction the townsfolk have to a black family moving in. These first few minutes seem to be foreshadowing a satirical dark comedy about the darkness and hypocrisy hiding behind the façade of a happy suburban community. After sitting through the entire film, it feels more like an attempt to provide meaning to a film that otherwise lacks any.
The film is actually about Gardner (three-time acting Oscar nominee Matt Damon), whose wife, Rose (Julianne Moore, a Best Actress Oscar winner in 2015 for Still Alice), is killed in a home invasion early in the story. Gardner is trying to move on and asks his wife’s sister, Margaret (also played by Moore), to move in so she can help look after Gardner’s young son, Nicky (Noah Jupe). Unfortunately, the killers (Glenn Fleshler (from such television series’ as True Detective, The Night of and Billions) and Alex Hassell) do not seem to be finished with Gardner.
The rest of Suburbicon hinges on a series of twists, so I will not reveal any more of the plot. What I will say is that the film is a very nasty piece of business that became more unpleasant to watch as it wore on.
Writing/directing duo Joel and Ethan Coen originally came up with the idea for this film and began writing the screenplay after they completed their first film, Blood Simple, in 1984. They never finished it and, eventually, it was handed off to George Clooney (who also directed) and his writing/producing partner Grant Heslov. By all accounts, they massively rewrote what was there, most notably adding in the story of the black Mayers family who move into this allegedly inclusive town and are repeatedly shown that they do not belong by their new white neighbors (this incident is based on a true story). Clearly, Clooney is trying to make a point by putting this story side-by-side with Gardner’s story, but I am not sure what that point is.
There is an attempt to connect the stories by having Nicky become friends with the Mayers son, Andy (Tony Espinosa); however, it is an uncomfortable fit. The racism, and a couple of awkward references to anti-Semitism (one in a conversation with the officer (Jack Conley) investigating his wife’s murder, the other during a television interview with one of the racist residents), is probably the reason Clooney wanted to make this film. The two stories are likely meant to comment on or inform each other in some way, but they never do. Part of the problem is that neither is fully developed. Suburbicon is two not very good movies uncomfortably put together.
Matt Damon and Julianne Moore, both very skilled actors, are oddly flat here, possibly intentionally. Regardless, the end result is that their characters are lifeless. Damon especially seems like he is just reciting his lines. The only time any energy is injected into the film is when Oscar Isaac (a very talented actor best known for playing pilot Poe Dameron in the ongoing Star Wars films) shows up in the last third. He seems like he is having a great time as a character who acts like he is smarter than everybody else and, as a result, things briefly perk up when he is on-screen.
Overall, Suburbicon (97 minutes without the end credits) is a mess. It feels like a Coen brothers film made without the control of tone and sensitivity to character that they have in their best films. The satire falls flat and the dark comedy comes off as mean-spirited instead of funny. Clooney may have been intrigued by the Coen’s original idea as a vehicle for his message, but he was unable to present that message in an entertaining and coherent way. His criminal characters are just unlikable instead of entertaining and the story about the Mayers’ feels pointless. The end result is a depressing misfire.
1½ out of 5
Matt Damon as Gardner
Julianne Moore as Rose, Margaret
Noah Jupe as Nicky
Glenn Fleshler as Sloan
Alex Hassell as Louis
Oscar Isaac as Bud Cooper
Gary Basaraba as Mitch
Karimah Westbrook as Mrs. Mayers
Tony Espinosa as Andy Mayers
Jack Conley as Hightower
Directed by George Clooney
Written by George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen