SUBURBICON (Directed by George Clooney, 104 minutes, 2017, USA)
BY CHRISTOPHER MALENEY FILM CRITIC Wouldn’t it be nice to go back to the simplicity and innocence of the 1950s? The postwar economy was booming: food was cheap, gas was cheap, and houses were cheap. The United States was on top of the world, justifying the excess of capitalism like never before. We were morally pure, with strong leaders, sanitized communities, and wholesome television. Kids played outside. Neighbors said hello to each other. Everyone had a job. Except, that’s not all true, is it? The fear of atomic annihilation pervaded the country. Sexuality and gender roles were more straightjacketed than ever. Lynchings were still all-too common — the 1950s saw the infamous murder of Emmett Till and the acquittal of his murderers. Suburbicon, a coal-black comedy written by the Coen brothers and directed by George Clooney, shows how these two sides of America are and were intimately entwined.
The film is set in the eponymous town of Suburbicon, somewhere equidistant from New York, Ohio, and Mississippi, where the White Flight has taken refuge from the cities’ pollution in a ready-made community of manicured lawns and split-level houses, reminiscent of the Levittowns of the era. When a black family moves into this all-white community, the seemingly idyllic homogeneity is punctured by a reality of reactionary brutality that is not exceptional, but, as we see throughout the movie, is an unspeakably normal occurrence, and a fundamental element of the psyche in this all-too-normal town. The film is divided into two narratives, that of the Mayer family and the Lodge family, who live back-to-back. The two sons, Andy Mayers and Nicky Lodge, are united through baseball, but none of the other family members speak except when absolutely necessary. Their plots interweave only on the symbolic level.
The Lodge family narrative which takes up most of the screentime is something like Double Indemnity, but with a body count that Shakespeare would be proud of. Following an apparent home invasion, Margaret Lodge (Julianne Moore) dies. Her husband, Gardiner Lodge (Matt Damon) seems to feel no remorse. He sits through the funeral and goes back to his corporate office shortly. Margaret’s sister, Rose (also Julianne Moore), moves in, quickly claiming the role of Nicky’s mother and Gardiner’s wife. Only Nicky seems to notice that something is wrong with his ideal family; neither his father nor his aunt identify the murderers in the police lineup, but Nicky sees them. Afraid that the men might return, and increasingly afraid of his own family, Nicky barricades himself in his room, his only contact coming through the tin-can telephone to the boy on the other side of the fence.
For the Mayer family, things go from bad to worse. The day that they move in, the neighborhood signs a petition denouncing the quiet and kind family as a disturbing nuisance and a blight on the community. While the Mayers responds with dignity, the white community becomes downright vile. Spite fences soon go up on two sides. The supermarket charges them twenty dollars for any item. People gather outside the Mayer house, day and night, to create as much of a racket as possible. They beat drums, play horns, sing loudly, holler abuse, and grow slowly restless. As the agitation worsens, the Lodge family cannot bring themselves to look out their closed curtains at the world. While the Lodges are not part of the abuse, they represent the majority who condone such horrors with their silence.
Violence sweeps across the face of Suburbicon with the Coens’ classic aplomb, leaving lives and property wrecked. None of the white folks seem to notice the true perpetrators of the violence; the talking heads on the TV blame the violence in Suburbicon on the uppity ‘negroes’ seeking integration too quickly, when we see that this is anything but the case. Ultimately, Suburbicon is not about a murder. It’s not even about suburbia. It’s about the lie at the heart of whiteness. Whiteness relies on believing that Europeans are inherently kind, caring, and loving, and that anyone else is inherently vile, base, and disruptive. The Coen-Clooney team have crafted a magnificent deconstruction of this lie by setting Suburbicon in the heart of white, suburban niceness as it reveals its true intentions. Whether we flinch at its message or understand it will speak volumes about us as individuals and as a nation.