Like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich laced with too many prescription drugs, Suburbicon might look, sound, and perhaps even taste a little like a Joel and Ethan Coen picture because, in a sense, it is. The Minnesota brothers penned the script for this deliciously cruel and acerbically funny 1960s suburban nightmare years ago — something of a surprise given the story’s fixation on building walls and having other people pay for them — before being picked up and brought to life, in all its glory, by George Clooney.
In a turn of events worth noting, the film’s publicity (surely amongst the year’s most misleading) hinted that Suburbicon would be something derivative of those brothers’ more slapstick-leaning ensemble outings (Burn After Reading, Hail, Caesar!, etc.) but — much to the director’s credit, it must be said — it is, in both content and tone, a far more somber beast.
Based in the titular, fictional, and microcosmic Eisenhower-era town, it links the arrival of the community’s first African American family and hate-fueled malaise that greets them with the killing of the family matriarch (Julianne Moore) who lives next door. Moore — always at her most devastating in mid-century mode — in fact has two roles (now that’s value!): as the soon-to-be-deceased Margaret Lodge and her twin sister, Nancy. The Coens’ script works like a chain reaction or, perhaps more accurately, domino run, with Margaret’s death just a single falling piece in the delicately organized and deadly whole.
This is set in motion when Margaret, prompted by her sister, sends her son Nicky (Noah Jupe, a fine presence) to play baseball with the young black boy next door. Needless to say, the local goons — fresh from a community “betterment” meeting — don’t take too kindly to all that. That night Margaret’s family is visited by two such goons (played by Glenn Fleshler and Michael Cohen), who provoke and humiliate the family patriarch (named Gardner and played by Matt Damon) and end up accidentally killing Margaret after giving her too liberal a dose of Chloroform. We’re 15 minutes in here, but we probably shouldn’t say much more.
When looking at all the talent behind something such as, say, The Monuments Men, it can be easy to judge — and you’d be within your rights for doing so — that gorgeous George has, perhaps, called in a few favors from his glittering Rolodex. On the surface, Suburbicon might be letting off that same odor at times but there is the sense of something else going on here, a sort of collaborative magic that partly recalls the workmanlike old-Hollywood way of doing things in which the director (and, again, credit to Clooney) is just another whirring cog in the grand machine. Indeed, not one corner of this production, nor one performance, feels in any way substandard.
Hidden behind the same style of browline glasses Alexander Mackendrick used to make Burt Lancaster’s face look like a skull in The Sweet Smell of Success, Matt Damon has never been more distant or cryptic, and viewers who spotted his name at the top billing should, perhaps, keep an eye out for the subdued manner in which Clooney introduces him. Oscar Isaac, playing a risk analyst for the local life insurance creeps, offers a performance of such charisma that it feels liable to block out the sun. Julianne Moore is Julianne Moore.
So the meat of Suburbicon is certainly Grade-A, but no expense has been spared on the trimmings either. Even the briefest supporting players are fully formed and often quite memorable. Everything from the Corn Flakes boxes that line the shelves of the local convenience store to the whoosh of Julianne Moore’s pristine hair feels tactile and carefully considered.
So what will the think pieces have to say about all this? The only line given to the parents of Nicky’s new colored friend — despite their considerable screen time — is to say: “these people are animals.” That fact might sound a bit dodgy, but there’s plenty of reason for it and, perhaps, there is little more to say. Greed, sex, power, and consumerism are the driving forces of the white inhabitants of Suburbicon and these forces are enough, it would seem, to justify tearing each other apart and thinking little of it. Needless to say, parables will be drawn to our current state of affairs.
All that said, however, one should not take too much heed of such things, and I would wager Clooney agrees. Entertainments like these simply don’t get made so much anymore. A top-dollar cast on the top of their game; lush cinematography, costume and set design; a script from two of cinema’s greatest living writers; and an emotionally unshackled, sweeping score from Alexandre Desplat (a man whose significance to contemporary cinema only grows greater with each passing year). Refusing the temptation to cast himself, a first in his career as director, Clooney’s mark on things is relatively discreet. That absence suggests a more serious approach to his filmmaking style, and it shows in every frame. Suburbicon is the type of work to sink one’s teeth into; cooked rare and oozing with hemoglobin.
Suburbicon premiered at Venice Film Festival and opens on October 27.