George Clooney’s sixth directorial feature concerns a quiet family town which is shaken by two events: the arrival of a black family and the home invasion of the mild mannered, improbably named Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon). Tensions rise and events soon spiral out of control as it becomes obvious that all is not as it seems in the quiet neighbourhood of Suburbicon.
The Coen Brothers wrote the screenplay for Suburbicon in 1986 and they return here to produce the film. There’s definitely a Coen Brothers feeling to the plot and characters, as small-minded, small-towners pursue self-interest in a quaint setting. There are definite traces of Fargo’s Jerry Lundegard in Damon’s Lodge. Unfortunately the film is never funny enough nor engaging enough to be an effective dark comedy.
The disparate elements often feel jarring. Cutting from a seemingly comedic scene of man choking to death, to brutal imagery of a family home being torn apart results in a tonal whiplash that diminishes the effect of both. The intentions of the film are unclear. Why are we seeing the horrific harassment of this young black family juxtaposed with the farcical scheming of small town crooks? Perhaps it’s that the neighbourhood were too busy worrying about the black folk to notice that the white people next door are up to no good. Not the most revolutionary concept to hang an entire film upon.
The film works best when we are experiencing the narrative via the Lodge’s young son, Nicky, played by Noah Jupe. Not only does Jupe give one of the most affecting and convincing performances of the film, but the surreal exaggeration of the environment and eccentricities of the adult characters make a lot more sense when justified as the flawed perception of a young child. This also lends itself to moments of real tension. The ambiguity around characters would work in the film’s favour from this perspective. If the boy was the audience’s surrogate and anchor then exploring this world would be much more engaging. Instead we have long stretches of the film with characters we don’t know.
My favourite scene involves the boy trying to look past a group of adults to see the police line-up that may contain his mother’s killer. Moments of real subjectivity like this are few in the film.
I did feel the film was also enlivened by Oscar Isaac’s smarmy insurance agent Bud Cooper who seemed to harken back to great noir thrillers like Double Indemnity. Everyone is playing a caricature of 50s Americana. It’s part of the comic tone the film aspires to. Isaac is able to play this better than most, carefully balancing his eccentricities with a real sense of threat.
Suburbicon is certainly interesting, perhaps even entertaining, but also frustrating. Despite the film’s long gestation period it feels as though this is still a few drafts away from being fully realised. Unfortunately Suburbicon must join the long list of mediocre films based on adaptations of Coen Brothers scripts. There is clearly something magical in the way the Coen Brothers translate their dark comedies to screen. Compared to the likes of Fargo or even Burn After Reading, Suburbicon just isn’t funny, dark or insightful enough to fully realise it’s promising potential.
2.5 / 5