Movie Review: American Nightmare – The ’50s Of “Suburbicon”

“The framing of this movie, in its near-perfect symmetry, offers so much of a Coen Brothers aesthetic it’s hard not to imagine this as something not specifically in their wheelhouse.”


 

Suburbicon is a peaceful, idyllic, suburban community with affordable homes and manicured lawns, the perfect place to raise a family, and in the summer of 1959, the Lodge family is doing just that. But the tranquil surface masks a disturbing reality, as husband and father Gardner Lodge must navigate the town’s dark underbelly of betrayal, deceit, and violence.

Whenever I watch a movie I try to leave as much of my bias as I can outside of the theater. My religious, political, or social beliefs get checked in at the door before I step into the theater. Unless, of course, a movie wants to be viewed through the lens of my political landscape and in “Suburbicon”’s case there’s a very direct political reading. We’ll get to that, but first: the movie.

This is the eighth directorial outing for George Clooney, with a script originally written by the Coen Brothers featuring Matt Damon as the lead. Everything in that sentence whets my movie appetite. Throw in some Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac and you’ve got me hooked. Surprisingly this movie didn’t live by its leads but rather by its side characters. Matt Damon, playing a perfectly suburban sociopath, muddles his way through the movie plotting and scheming in an effect slightly flatter than Dexter. That’s not Damon’s fault, I think, since the movie follows the efforts of this suburban man to escape his mundane life with Julianne Moore and go ‘to Aruba, a Dutch protectorate with all kinds of foods.’ Damon’s lifeless sociopathy enhances everyone else around him, especially Oscar Isaac. Isaac breathes life into the movie just when the characters feel too flat. Also, I’d like to shout out Glenn Fleshler (the wild villain from Season 1 of “True Detective”) for bringing all kinds of ominous, violent portents to his performance.

While Matt Damon’s machinations play themselves out the uniquely mayonnaise-colored neighborhood gathers to harass the new African American neighbors. It is this second plot that twines the movie together, thematically. As an audience, we’re disgusted by the racist horrors forced upon this family. The neighborhood of quaint suburban house moms and dads devolves into slavering angry beasts all because “it used to be nice until they moved in.” As this plot develops so does the statement made. It’s too coincidental to be singularly about the ’50s. Think about it: white people blame African Americans for their problems, the problems grow (Damon’s schemes come back to bite him in the butt), their aggression rises to match their problems, their hatred grows until it physically assaults the innocent African American family. As if that wasn’t enough of a 2017 allegory, we’re treated to a little bow tie: camera crews report on the mass murder occurring at Damon’s house. The talking heads interview says “That family used to be so nice until they moved in.” Those of us in the know understand it’s commentary, the rest of the audience gets that something was said.

Ultimately, this movie suffers under the weight of its finale. Instead of spending time with these characters, we spend time exploring the mystery behind the murder of Matt Damon’s wife (also Julianne Moore.) The movie carries hints of that dark comedy the Coen Brothers are famous for but nothing really lands until the final scene. I’ll be the first to admit I loved the finale (in this sequence where every time Matt Damon takes a bite out of a peanut butter jelly sandwich we giggle), but the efforts spent to get us to that place prevented us from enjoying more of the characters in this wacky crime thriller. I hate to be that guy but I’d call this movie: Coen Brothers lite.

Before I go, I want to explicitly tout James D. Bissell’s production design. The dreamy ’50s era everything filled the screen with design not so much exact ’50s as the ’50s we show ourselves in movies and TV. The film’s stark lighting matches the impressive tight shots. The framing of this movie, in its near-perfect symmetry, offers so much of a Coen Brothers aesthetic it’s hard not to imagine this as something not specifically in their wheelhouse. By the time we get to the film’s boiling point we’re thoroughly soaked in the horror of the ’50s that not even the cloudiest milk glass can offer us relief.

People who don’t like their movies in a political sphere (George Clooney directed this and I know that guy’s a politically engaged person) will be disappointed. The theme of this movie carries the weight of the heavy plotting. I think it’s fair to say that if you’re fans of dark comedy, murder mysteries, or the Coen Brothers, this movie will be up your alley. Go check it out! In theaters! Be prepared to cringe, then laugh, then cringe some more.

In theaters Friday, October 27th


 

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