Nicky Lodge (Noah Jupe) is an average kid living in an average house in the average neighborhood of Suburbicon. His father Gardner (Matt Damon) works in insurance. His mother Rose (Julianne Moore) is in a wheelchair after an automobile accident. His Aunt Margaret (also Julianne Moore) is visiting overnight when two men, Ira and Louis (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell) enter the home, tie everyone up and kill Rose with an overdose of chloroform. It seems Gardner owes the men money and hasn’t paid it back yet so the murder of Rose was a warning. Aunt Margaret moves into the Lodge home to help Gardner raise Nicky. Officer Hightower (Jack Conley) tells Gardner to come down to the station and look at a lineup based on his description of the robbers. Margaret brings Nicky to the station because he doesn’t want to stay at the house alone. While Ira and Louis are in the lineup neither Gardner nor Margaret tells police who they are. Nicky is confused and wonders what his father and aunt are up to. Meanwhile, the Mayers family has moved into Suburbicon and caused quite a stir with the neighbors as they are black and this is 1959. The Mayers house backs up to the Lodge house and Nicky and Andy Mayers (Tony Espinosa), a boy about Nicky’s age, have become friends. Crowds gather at the Mayers house, making noise, banging drums and yelling at the family inside to move as they don’t want their kind in Suburbicon.
Whenever Joel and Ethan Coen are involved in the making of a movie I get excited. “Suburbicon” is a script the brothers wrote back in 1986 but it has only now been turned into a film by frequent Coen Brothers collaborator George Clooney. Clooney, along with writer Grant Heslov, added some story elements and Clooney directed. Perhaps George and Grant should have left the script alone because “Suburbicon” feels like a two different stories that have been forcefully fused together against their will.
The trailer for “Suburbicon” makes the movie look like a madcap crime caper and parts of the film have that tone; however, much of what is suggested in the trailer misrepresents what happens in the film with clever editing suggesting one thing is in reaction to another when the events are unrelated. Anyone walking into the movie expecting a somewhat more violent version of “Raising Arizona” is going to be disappointed. “Suburbicon” is far darker than the trailer suggests.
It is also uneven with a subplot about the community trying to force a black family to leave feeling very shoehorned into the film. It is a ham-fisted attempt by Clooney to make us see that what is the focus of public anger usually isn’t the real problem. While everyone in the neighborhood believes the black family is bringing in an unsavory element, the nice white family across the way is being terrorized by thugs because of the actions of the father. It screams hypocrisy and intolerance in a very clumsy way. Clooney has proven he is a very good movie director so it puzzles me why this effort is so uneven. I would like to know more about the creative process to put this film together because large parts of it are really good. That’s not to say the sections involving the black family isn’t good; but it just feels like it’s from a different movie.
It’s a shame the film is a bit of a mess since Matt Damon is so good as the morally corrupted Gardner Lodge. Lodge is a man that thinks he’s far smarter than he actually is; however, he quickly shows he’s quite dumb by not paying off the loan shark. Perhaps that is part of a larger plan; but even so, it spectacularly blows up in his face. Lodge is pushed further and further into bad decisions as the story progresses and is always trying to solve problems caused by other efforts to solve problems. Damon plays Lodge constantly seething with anger and on the verge of exploding. Like a good person of the period, he stuffs his rage down deep in his soul and tries to keep it bottled up. Should it be released well, people might talk and think poorly of him down at the lodge or church. Damon is infuriating as Lodge since most of his issues could be solved with one call to the police; but we know he’ll never make that call as he is a coward looking to avoid as much trouble as possible. Damon gives Lodge a boyish charm that gives him at least one redeeming quality, keeping the audience from hating him totally.
Julianne Moore is both Rose and Margaret but since the former is killed early in the film I’ll be talking mostly about her performance as the latter. Moore is stunningly creepy as the surrogate mother and wife. There is a streak of cruelty that runs through the character that turns what could have been a throwaway role into something meaningful and dangerous. Margaret is clearly mentally ill and is teetering on the edge of a breakdown throughout the film. Moore is masterful at portraying damaged characters and this one is clearly broken from almost the first time we see her.
The performances are somewhat hampered by a plot that moves at a leisurely pace. It takes too long to introduce the meat of the story after the misdirection of the black family’s arrival in town and the full story of what’s going on is never fully explained. We know Lodge owes money to the thugs but we don’t know what he got the money for. Are the thugs small time players or are they more heavily connected? Are Gardner and Margaret involved prior to the events in the film or only after? Gardner was driving the night of the car accident that put Rose in the wheelchair but did he do it on purpose to try and collect on her life insurance? There are a great many loose threads dangling by the end of the film with no satisfactory answers for any of them.
“Suburbicon” is rated R for some sexuality, language and violence. There is poisoning, strangling, stabbing and other violence shown with some of it being very bloody. There is a riot that breaks out at the Mayers’ home with windows shattered and fires set. The sexuality is limited to a scene where Nicky walks in on Gardner and Margaret having a mildly kinky scene. Foul language is scattered.
There’s a really good movie embedded in “Suburbicon” that could have been the dark and violent domestic drama that the Coen’s made famous in “Fargo” and “Blood Simple.” Sadly, the addition of a needless subplot about racism and a languid pace put “Suburbicon” on the lower end of “Best Coen Brothers’ Movies” scale. Great performances from Matt Damon and Julianne Moore almost are wasted. It isn’t the best movie but it does have its redeeming qualities. If you have the patience check it out.
“Suburbicon” gets three stars out of five.
This week, there’s a rare Wednesday opening for a sequel and the arrival of the next Marvel flick. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:
A Bad Mom’s Christmas—
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