I want to take a hammer and smash that fucking Tomatometer. It’s always been the case that critics eviscerate movies they were denied early screenings to, and also that they, along with audiences, do not respond well to false or misleading advertising. Such is the case with Suburbicon, the new film directed by George Clooney from a script written by the Coen Brothers over thirty years ago. Clooney and partner Grant Heslov picked it up and polished the thing for their own purposes and have made a pretty evil and twisted movie. It’s obvious why the Coens abandoned Suburbicon: the plot is so similar to Fargo—a vastly superior movie and probably their best—that they would be rightly accused of repeating themselves and recycling ideas if they directed this one themselves. But passing it off to friends to handle is a great way to get B or C-level work out into the world. An artist’s scraps, sketches, and unfinished ideas are often just as interesting as their major works, usually because the edges haven’t been sanded off yet, and things don’t completely cohere. This is true of Suburbicon, but the critical drubbing it’s received is way overboard for a perfectly fine film that’s much, much darker than its trailers suggest.
We enter “Suburbicon,” an early 1950’s Norman Rockwell paradise, with an unsettling commercial for the town, extolling all it has to offer: community, safety, beauty, comfort. We cut seamlessly to the mailman on his route, and the relentlessly cheery facade of Suburbicon is broken when the mailman can barely hide his surprise and disgust that a black family has moved in. This is how we begin: the town descends on the black family, taunting them and surrounding their house and making unholy noise at all hours of the day. The only sympathetic neighbors are the Lodges, headed by Gardner (Matt Damon), Rose (Julianne Moore), Margaret (Julianne Moore again, playing Rose’s sister), and young Nicky (Noah Jupe). Rose implores Nicky to go play with the black boy next door while Gardner and Rose plot something truly heinous, far beyond anything portrayed in Fargo.
My colleague Stephen Silver hated Suburbicon and wondered whether it was “the worst movie of the year so far.” He wrote in his review that “Suburbicon doesn’t have its heart in the racism subplot, for a simple reason: the black family has hardly any characters. They lack first names or traits, and the father (Leith M. Burke) doesn’t speak altogether. As a racism fable, Suburbicon isn’t subtle, but it’s not progressive in the slightest. It’s patronizing.” This subplot is indeed completely superfluous, and you could cut the entire thing out without losing anything from the movie. I wouldn’t call it patronizing or offensive, it’s just unnecessary. Whether it was in there in the original Coens draft or added on latter by Clooney and Heslov, we don’t know. But for a script rescue that has languished since the early 1980s, Suburbicon is pretty damn good, and really twisted. Almost everyone in this movie is a horrible person. Silver is right that Suburbicon “is being sold with an egregiously dishonest advertising campaign, which implies that Damon’s character is a brave, put-upon suburban dad striking back against criminals.” In fact, he’s a sociopath and a serial killer, and sits his son down at the end to tell him he’s going to kill him—right before he eats a poisoned PB&J and glass of milk intended for the boy. It’s really, really sick—which was a welcome surprise.
Other critics no doubt took note of Damon and Clooney’s complicity in Harvey Weinstein’s crimes and judged this film accordingly, sparing nothing. Peter Travers wrote that Suburbicon is "movie that is tonally at war with itself” and that its subplot “gives the film a hectoring tone that wreaks havoc with its blistering comic thrust.” Owen Gleiberman said that the black family next door “almost seems to be taking place in a different film.”
But to say that the racism subplot is “patronizing” is silly: this is a patchwork film, and yes, you lose absolutely no plot if you cut out the racial tension in Suburbicon. I mean, it’s not as if you needed to add more evil to this town! The son walking in on his dad fucking his aunt with a ping-pong paddle in the basement, and them planning to escape to Aruba after slyly hiring some mobsters to kill the wife, and finally watching everyone die bloody deaths through Nicky’s eyes, we’re run through the mill with these people. The film ends with Nicky and the black boy playing catch across their fences, and the camera pulls back, the sun setting on an impossible situation with no resolution. Audiences hate this, critics hate it for political reasons, and misleading advertising always gets people in trouble. Oh well. This was so much more enjoyable than the milquetoast A Serious Man rewrite I was expecting based on the trailer. It was a pleasure to watch Matt Damon bumble and stumble through sociopathy and getting what he deserved in the end. The implications of what Nicky goes through—I mean, there’s no way this kid doesn’t turn to hard drugs once the 1960s hit, unless he’s institutionalized before he can shoot heroin for the first time. Suburbicon is a thoroughly fucked up black comedy, and while a bit shaggy, it’s not nearly the disaster that so many have made it out to be.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER1992