Chekov’s three sisters had their dream of a perfect life in Moscow. The increasingly desperate and frazzled denizens of SUBURBICON have Aruba, a place where the food is exotic, the golf is for couples, and the long arm of the law cannot reach them. Alas, this deliciously stylized evocation of the dark side of the 1950s proves an uncertain collaboration between the Coen Brothers (as co-writers) and George Clooney (as director and co-writer with Grant Heslov). One that fails to find the tangents between its several themes, yet still barrels along to the inevitably fiery climax that erupts as the residents of the titular enclave work themselves into overwrought lathers when pushed to their limits. Instead of a neo-noir framework that pays homage to that genre’s tropes and idioms, we have a neo-mess. There are the eccentric characters and terrifying situations with which le monde Coen is rife, but there is no sparkle to the black humor, if indeed that was the intent, nor bite to the satire, if that is what was intended.
We do, however, have fine performances from all concerned, starting with Matt Damon as the prosaically monikered Gardner Lodge. He’s an upright pillar of his community, and a staunch family man standing by his wheelchair-bound wife, Rose (Julianne Moore), despite the constant stream of belligerence that flows from her tightly compressed lips. In stark contrast to Rose is her sister Margaret (also Ms. Moore), who is a nurturing soul, happy to help her sister shell beans on the porch, and to prod her nephew, Nicky (Noah Jupe), to play with Andy (Tony Espinosa) the African-American kid who just moved in next door, to the consternation of everyone else in Suburbicon.
Of course, evil lurks beneath the placid facades and blandly smiling faces. The protests against the new neighbors by the Betterment Committee begin with appropriating the civil right struggle in a neat trick of sophistry that leads to direct action that starts in petulance and ends in a riot. Meanwhile in the Lodge home, there’s the murder of Rose, and the fraught emotional dynamic that it creates between father and son, leaving Nicky sullen and prone to nightmares. Some of these happen while he’s awake as Aunt Margaret moves in to take care of him, and gradually becomes less and less nurturing.
One admires the introverted neurosis that Damon radiates, the internalized rage at the psychological games the two
low-life housebreakers (Corey Allen Kotler, Alex Hassell) play with him before, during, and after Rose’s murder; the stern affect of emotional unavailability, so emblematic of those repressed times, when dealing with a son who won’t fall into line; the careful affability dealing with the local constabulary (Jack Conley); the smiling contempt towards his bear-hug of a brother-in-law (Gary Basaraba); and the fresh-faced puzzlement with which he greets the insurance investigator (Oscar Isaac), investigation red flags, and who is barely less oily that the hoods who killed Rose. One wishes it were in a film that could find its footing. Or at least settle on a tone. But, no, one minute a subtle thriller with Jupe’s wide eyes conveying the loss of innocence and of any sense of security as a rock-solid promise of suburbia crumbles around him, the next, it’s a broad screed against the violent racism that the sight of black faces in a white community provokes. And just to make sure we aren’t missing the point of where the film finds its typically mid-century a note of hope, the two kids aren’t just pals, they are near-twins, dressed almost identically as they insouciantly play baseball or watch the mayhem around Andy’s house from a safe hiding place as Andy explains how his father has told him to deal with it.
SUBURBICON examines the many subtle uses of the word “liability” as its characters continually reassess one another and the nature of their relationships. And one keeps coming back to Clooney, a fine director with the right material (GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK springs to mind), but not one who can find the quirky magic that the Coens can mine from vicious characters and absurd situations. It’s a darn shame.