Venice 2017 Review: SUBURBICON Floats Between Brilliant and Underbaked
George Clooney directs Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac from a script by the Coen brothers
The opening sequences of George Clooney's Suburbicon unfold in front of us like an animated book straight from a Cold War infomercial. Set in late 1940s America, these scenes are accompanied by a narrator who cooingly tells us the benefits of living in the quaint suburban town of the film's title, and an excruciatingly optimistic piano track chirps in the background. Meanwhile the vibrant Pop Art moves as our eyes land on it, and the characters even begin to gleefully interact with us.
Before long, we sink into one of the pages and find ourselves in real-life Suburbicon, a small American microcosm that immediately proves to be more sinister than the commercial's skin-deep veneer. Once there, we find ourselves surrounded by Jenny Eagan's immaculately showy 40s and 50s costume design, and Robert Elswit's cinematography makes this world feel perfectly dated. But the constant presence of strict squares and symmetry in James D. Bissel's production design of Suburbicon's match-box houses also definitely make the town seem claustrophobic and sinisterly oppressive.
The cast and crew have certainly succeeded in perpetuating our seemingly endless fascination with the styles and behaviours of this period of American history, but for some reason this humoured crime thriller feels superficial (perhaps intentionally). It only has a watered-down something of the strangeness and sinisterness that Lynch's Blue Velvet has, for example. Nevertheless, Suburbicon does have all the trademark vivacity and humour of one of the Coen brothers' more recent scripts. And this most recent, larger-than-life Coen script is soon shuffling after something of a red herring.
Intially the film's characters seem to be going around in some kind of infuriating bliss - but soon we get wind that the newest members of Suburbicon's community are in fact a well-to-do African American family. The townsfolk all immediately begin to get riled and start making malicious demands, and you slowly begin to think that Surburbicon will be all about African Americans' struggles to overcome the racial tensions of the United States.
Despite appearances, though, this quite far from the truth. This part of the plot could actually almost be better described as a front. Soon a white family enters the frame and starts hogging the centre stage. This family includes previous Clooney collaborator Matt Damon as an unassuming father, Juliane Moore as a caring aunty and the rather brilliant Noah Jupe as Damon's innocent son. It is Jupe's perspective as Nicky that we are driven to associate with most, and as a result the whole story seems to take on an almost child-like cartoon style or fable-esque dimensions.
We witness as Nicky is cajoled into playing with the new neighbour's boy - and then before we have had a chance to acclimatise ourselves, a house invasion takes place in what seems like a surprise retribution for fraternising with the new neighbours. But nothing could be further from the truth, and the film soon crystallises into something much darker - all whilst the story of the African American family slowly distracts us and the town's inhabitants from the truth.
Rather brilliantly (one might joke), Damon actually comes to embody entitled, corpulent, white American masculinity, whilst Moore becomes with every moment more and more like Norma Bates from Bates Motel - both physically and mentally. Together they plot to have whatever they please, with nobody being safe from their scheming, and between them is caught poor, defenceless Nicky.
What follows is an unexpected tale that hinges heavily on dramatic irony. Time and time again, there is little that we don't know in advance of the characters, and frequently what we do know is about to get somebody killed. It all makes for an amusing bit of melodrama, and seems to nostalgically tip its hat back to an almost classical style of story telling where everybody lives and dies in a heated flash of passion or vengeance. But truth be told, there is ironically something flat about this all.
The sort of fable/cartoon side to the film makes for a fun diversion, but it is rarely laugh-out-loud. And the nature of the actor's intentionally fake performances actually becomes a bit grating - it lacks real complexity or conviction. It's almost as though it isn't until Oscar Isaac appears on the scene as a charismatic, snooping insurance policy detective that Suburbicon actually lights up. Only with the introduction of his sassy performance, and a sudden dramatic intensification of the plot, does the film seem to actually become the do-or-die melodramatic thriller it always thought it was.
And whilst it is really quite interesting the way in which Suburbicon explores the way that America has historically remained completely oblivious to its very real problems by stigmatising and ostracising other parts of its society, you can't also help but feel this exploration is also quite problematic. It's not really easy to say that the black lives in this film matter, seeing as they are so easily sidelined by the film's foremost white narrative and cast. And in someways, you could perhaps argue that it even trivialises the hardships that African Americans faced in 1940s America by reducing it to a plot device.
But I suppose in reality, this section of the film was actually intended as quite pertinent and current comment on the rather grotesque horrors that can be committed behind the scenes in America when its populace is otherwise preoccupied scapegoating minorities. It certainly makes for an interesting response to Trump's America, but you can't help but wonder if the casts performances would have been a touch more complex, and the script a bit more deeply interrogated, if the Coen brothers had opted to keep Suburbicon for themselves.
Suburbicon is worth watching and can bring a smile to your face, but it's unlikely to be the best offering at the 74th Biennale di Venezia.