Sunday, August 19, 2018


SUBURBICON is a much-maligned film - so much so that I put off watching it for quite some time. I see the issue with it. Despite his earnest liberal pose, George Clooney has created a film in which the story of a black family victimised by racists in 1950s America is treated as a counter-point to the main story of a white family torn apart by lust and murder. He doesn't condescend to give his black characters names, personalities, an inner life, agency.  They are cookie-cutter martyrs.  In fact, Clooney doesn't even look that interested in what they're going through, other than that a climactic race riot can provide an opportunity for his actual protagonist to mask a murder.  One has to ask oneself how a director who is also an activist could be so tone deaf to his own implicit racism.  Maybe it's just another example of the inability of rich white old men to "get it".  

The problem is that if we write off all of SUBURBICON because of Clooney's racist mis-step, we ignore the evident artistry of its main  plot. In fact, one could imagine someone putting the film through FinalCutPro, taking out the black neighbour side-plot, and coming up with a very finely produced, nasty, subversive, little suburban thriller.  The tragedy of SUBURBICON is, then, not that it's a bad film, but that it's a good film with a side-order of tone-deaf sub-plot. 

So let's get to the main film. It's a Clooney directorial effort based on a 1980s script by the Coen Brothers, whose sensibilities he has absorbed over many years of working for them as an actor. He has reworked the script with producing partner Grant Heslov to create a dark tale of lust and greed. As the film opens, its protagonist Gardner (Matt Damon) is living with his wife and son Nicky as well as his sister-in-law (both sisters played by Julianne Moore).  In an early and tense scene of home invasion, the wife is killed, after which Gardner takes up with the sister, who creepily dies her hair to look like the dead sibling.  This - and other "red flags" raise the suspicions of an oppressively charming insurance fraud investigator played by Oscar Isaac, and we realise that Gardner is in cahoots with two mobsters.

This kind of complex caper, with crosses and double-crosses, small-time crooks and venal men, are common in Coen Brothers movies. But this is not one of their dark comedies. Rather, it's a relentlessly vicious film, centring as it does on a small kid who sees and is victimised by violence and coercion. To that end, I thought Clooney handled the tension and the violence very well - walking just the right balance of holding our gaze vs exploitation.

I also loved Clooney's visual style in this film, his scrupulous use of vintage design - not just clothes and the way the houses are dressed - but the logos on the beauty parlour window and the brochure for a military school - the deep dark oppressive browns of Gardner's office. Everything is just right.  He also knows how to frame a shot.  Matt Damon, broken nose and glasses, trying to intimidate his son, with an absurdly lit fish-tank behind him. In many ways, I think this is Clooney at his most deliberate and controlled and I loved it. And of course Julianne Moore is superb. In other words, there's a lot that's really superb in this film if - and it's a big if - you can overlook the serious political mis-step. 

SUBURBICON has a running time of 105 minutes and is rated R. It is available to rent and own.

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