Suburbicon: An Ugly and Inept Mistep
Written Review by David Carter
I think more and more about how movies are advertised in the present. There are so many different forms of media vying for people’s increasingly diminished time that I feel like movie trailers are cut in such a strange way now. They’re closer to music videos than they are previews that give you a boiled down plot synopsis of a film. I think this is all because films have generally gotten better at tonal control in recent years. Filmmakers have a firmer grasp on aesthetics, mood and how to use them viscerally to engage audience members. That’s been coming through in movie trailers in the past few years in a big way. Drop a classic or current pop hit into the mix (sometimes a comically serious cover of that song), sync it to the action and throw in some great sounding dialogue (regardless if the context is misleading). You got yourself a 2-3 minute music video that might capture the tone of what your movie is.
Unfortunately, you can harness this to completely mislead audiences as to what your movie actually is and what it’s about. This is where I found myself watching the trailer for George Clooney’s Suburbicon. The movie I thought I was getting was a candy-coated Cohen crime caper. A Coen brothers movie with a lighter touch. They wrote the screenplay after all and the trailer had what looked like a dumb but scheming family man played by Matt Damon taking revenge on some hoods for killing his wife, all the while trying to protect his son and sister-in-law. The trailer had the Run The Jewels/DJ Shadow song “Nobody Speak” synced up over footage of actors (all of which are or should be Coen regulars) behaving in increasingly desperate and manic ways. This looked like a fun but minor Coens’ movie guided by the hands of a director infatuated with the look and rhythms of idyllic 50’s America and its dark undercurrents. However, it’s a film that hides it’s actual premise and thematic content from the audience because it’s either poorly conceived, executed, ugly, or more realistically, all of the above.
As the trailer suggests, Suburbicon is about an ideal 1950’s community called Suburbicon. It’s what you would expect in a broad sense. Children jump-rope, the milkman greets everybody by name and primary colored houses are squeezed together like Starburst in their wrapper. What quickly becomes clear is that something else is going on with this movie. As we discover that a black family has just moved into this neighborhood, to the outrage and malice of almost every other member of this community, we also discover that this movie isn’t going to be just about the unlikely dark undercurrents of unassuming places. It’s only after this scene that we meet our lead family. Gardner (played by Matt Damon) as paterfamilias, the mother Rose, sister-in-law Margaret (twins played by Julianne Moore, who for the second time in 2017 after Kingsman: The Golden Circle is given a potentially interesting part that is hindered by bad direction) and the little boy Nicky (relative newcomer Noah Jupe). This family lives next door to the black family and has a different type of drama unfolding. One night while Nicky sleeps, two men named Louis and Sloan (Alex Hassell and Glenn Fleshler respectively) come into their home and take the entire family hostage. They’re drugged but just before Gardner, Nicky, and Margaret lose consciousness they see Rose given another dose of chloroform, killing her. Nicky becomes increasingly suspicious when after this tragedy his aunt Margaret moves in, and his father willfully fails to ID the two men who killed his mother in a police lineup. From there, things spin out into a yarn of bad deals and even more badly kept secrets with Nicky caught in the middle of all of it. Powerless and scared for his life.
If you couldn’t guess, Matt Damon’s Gardner is not the main character as the trailer of this film would suggest, it’s Nicky. For a while. it seems like this is purely done as a narrative trick. Make the protagonist someone who is incapable or only subtly capable of directing the story. But when you realize that Suburbicon and by extension the Gardner household (I can’t seem to find this family’s last name) is just a microcosmic representation of America itself, it all starts making sense. Matt Damon and Julianne Moore are the American government making corrupt deals with shady outside parties, only for those parties to come back and haunt them. Nicky is a generation of more progressive people who are ineffectual in calling out and trying to survive this bullshit.
This then answers the question of why this seemingly random black family next door even matters to the overall thematic or even textual narrative of the film. While all of these wacky criminal happenings are going down, the neighborhood, police force and media are too distracted with the circus of outrage. Even to the point that mass destruction and damage are done on Matt Damon’s behalf and it’s barely noticed. If you put all the pieces together you get a pretty clear picture:
Suburbicon is about corruption in America going unnoticed because people and the powers that be are too distracted by things like civil rights.
In 2017 I can barely think of something that feels like an uglier point to make. If you’re on social media you’ve probably heard some people, who feel like they’re above it all, espouse how things like the trans military ban or Black Lives Matter is all just smoke and mirrors to keep people ignorant of the real problems that all Americans face. This is an ugly line of thinking because it misses a very important point about these groups of people and their struggles. Not only are they in immediate danger and being treated like second-class citizens, they’re also having to deal with the corruption of the government just like everybody else does. The black family in Suburbicon is trapped in their house and made to endure a cacophony of slurs and jeers while Matt Damon literally gets away with murder. The movie doesn’t make any attempt to point this out and flesh the movie and characters out, it just wants to be a contrarian scream at liberal ideals.
It’s worth pointing out that this “subplot” was added in when Clooney and his frequent partner Grant Heslov combined a script about a real-life occurrence of a black family trying to buy a home in an all-white neighborhood in Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1957. Honestly, even with this information, it doesn’t really add any insight to the movie in which the context is completely different. Meaning, if this movie is supposed to be about the injustice of this black family, then why combine it with something as cynical and silly as a Coen brother script? Suburbicon is either a mash-up of a mess put together by people who don’t have a grasp on the material or an edgelord manifesto about how easy it is to distract from the real problems of the world. Regardless, I don’t think anyone was sold either of those ideas when watching the trailer.