SUBURBICON: On The Inherent Violence Of The American Suburb
Despite some flaws, Suburbicon is still a riot of a good time, poking fun at the inherent obscurity of the American Dream in a unique way.
Suburbicon’s breezy 105 minute run-time closes on an idyllic image of the American suburb: two young boys, one white, one black, each standing in his own garden, play catch, throwing the ball across their fences. It’s a quaint and cheesy image, one that should feel outdated, or at least inefficient for the contemporary American climate. And yet, I couldn’t help but be amazed at how George Clooney closed off his sixth directorial feature. Not because of the superficial sentiment of that idyllic image, mind you. Rather, for what it was packaged in.
I know I’m in the minority here. I know folks left and right (both figuratively and politically) have found this film to be nothing if not lacking; a disappointing flop from a talented director and a ferocious cast. Most importantly, I know that many were, justifiably, upset with the abysmal screen time afforded to the characters of color. But, with the exception of the aforementioned point, I could not disagree more. Suburbicon, for all its flaws, is a hilarious and incisive look at the inherently violent nature of the American suburb.
Suburb within a Suburb
Of course, Hollywood is by no means a stranger to films that question and/or shatter the traditional image of the American suburb and the kind of American Dream it stands for. From canonical classics like Mike Nichols’s The Graduate and Sam Mendes’s American Beauty to genre-bending comedies like Peter Weir’s The Truman Show and Gary Ross’s Pleasantville, the suburban satire is nothing short of a cinematic staple. But while all these films make excellent observations on the façade and impossibility of the perfect suburban life, Suburbicon is unique in that it focuses on the violence, both racial and misogynistic, that is inherent to the very foundation of the suburbs.
The film follows too overlapping arcs. The first is that of the Mayers, a black family who, no sooner than moving to Suburbicon, experience an ever-increasing torrent of violent racist backlash. The second is that of their neighbors, the Lodges, a colossally dysfunctional family helmed by Matt Damon’s foul patriarch, Gardener Lodge. Shortly after the Mayers move in, the plot kicks into action when the Lodges’ only child, Nicky (played excellently by the young Noah Jupe), is awakened in the middle of the night by his terrified father, who informs him that there’re men in the house.
After intimidating and humiliating his parents, the thugs tie Nicky and his family, and use chloroform to drug them before they escape. When he wakes, Nicky is horrified to learn that too much of the drug was used on his mother (a brooding Julianne Moore), causing her to overdose and die. What follows is a dark and comic tale of adultery, fraud, and violence, as Nicky discovers the unsettling truth about his father and aunt (a much chirpier Julianne Moore).
This is where the trouble starts for Suburbicon. Before the home invasion, we see Nicky playing with Andy, the Mayers’ young son, as a couple of skinhead-esque youth watch disapprovingly. While the thugs terrorize the Lodges, we cut to the outside of their home to see that same pair of skinhead-esque goons watching intently. It took me a while to realize that this was simply bad editing and that there was no relationship between Nicky and Andy’s budding friendship, and the attack. It is clear that Clooney intended, on some level, for there to be both narrative and thematic overlapping between the arcs of these two families, but one has to read hard into the final product to find the remnants. Still, it says something about the Lodges that they are so obnoxiously in their own heads and troubles that they’re oblivious to the literal fires next door.
Trouble in (White) Paradise
But the much bigger problem with the Mayers’ arc is the problematic dearth of time we actually spend with them. We learn practically nothing about them, their characters, their quirks, or their backstory. With the exception of Andy’s fascination with snakes, we don’t get any sense of the Mayers’ characters or personalities. A such, they essentially only appear in scenes where they are violently persecuted. We don’t even see the inside of their home until the climactic scene in which a race riot erupts in Suburbicon and white residents storm the Mayer household. As such, the Mayers become little more than a vehicle for Clooney to comment on the racial violence of the period, as opposed to a fully realized set of characters.
Perhaps Suburbicon would have been better off had it focused more on its incisive interrogation of whiteness, or rather the invention of it. As mentioned before, there has never been a shortage of films that deal with the disillusionment of white suburban life, but very few explore the absurdity of whiteness the way Suburbicon does.
When word gets out that the Mayers have moved into town, a deplorable town hall meeting takes place in which angry white man after angry white man vehemently protest the presence of a black family in their pristine neighborhood. Like the various white people interviewed on television throughout the film, the reason constantly being given as a half-assed attempt to justify their racism is the preservation of the suburb.
This creates a fascinating, and telling, dynamic that reflects much of what we are going through right now. As many pointed out following the election of Donald Trump, whiteness, as a construct, would rather keep people of color out even if it means destroying itself. This is a paradigm that is reflected powerfully in the film.
The residents of Suburbicon are so hell-bent on preserving the whiteness of the suburb that they would rather literally burn down the suburb than simply deal with their racism and move on with their lives. Given the film’s poor handling of the Mayers, this approach is without a doubt flawed, but it is too lively to be merely dismissed.
All in all, Suburbicon is a solid, darkly comic thriller that certainly could have delivered more on its political and historical commentary, but manages to do enough to warrant you checking out. If nothing else, go see it for Oscar Isaac’s phenomenal turn as a crooked insurance officer. Then watch Matt Damon brutally murder him. It’s so much fun.
What do you want to see Clooney do next?
Suburbicon is currently in theaters in the U.S. and the UK. For a list of full release dates, see here.
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