The Moral Truths of ‘Suburbicon’

The film Suburbicon begins with a shot of an opening storybook, a convention used at the start of classic fairytale films like Snow Whiteand Cinderella. The kings of these castles, however, are mid-20th century, middle-aged white guys, and their kingdom is a splendorous landscape of freshly mowed lawns, freshly built homes, and freshly waxed sedans sitting in driveways.

Directed by George Clooney and written by Clooney, the Coen brothers, and Grant Heslov, Suburbicon uses a fairytale setting as a cheeky backdrop for the chilling misadventures of the Lodge family. Headed by corporation man Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon, largely hidden behind glasses and inscrutably broody), the household also includes his disabled wife, Rose (Julianne Moore), and their young son, Nicky. Rose’s twin sister, Margaret (Moore again), is in for a visit—one that soon stretches into a longer-than-expected stay.

The pleasingly pastel visual uniformity of nearly identical homes and nearly identical twins doesn’t last long, however. First, an African American family, the Mayers, moves in behind the Lodges, integrating the neighborhood and setting off less-than-neighborly scuttlebutt. The main story, however, begins later that night when young Nicky Lodge is roused from his bed by his father. Burglars are in the house. Despite Gardner’s assurances to his son, neither Nicky nor we viewers really believe that things will be all right ever again.

On a road to hell paved with selfish intentions and littered with a high body count, Gardner Lodge, we discover, has set in motion a plan to change his life at the expense of the people around him. His ruthless self-interest sets off a series of events: first home invasion then murder, infidelity then insurance fraud, and extortion topped off with yet more murder. The question of who, if anyone, will be left to protect and love young Nicky Lodge is a source of increasing anxiety.

While a series of atrocities unfolds within their home, the Lodge family draws no neighborly attention. For the Mayers, however, their quiet family life (truly—they have almost no dialogue) is increasingly scrutinized and surveilled on the basis of their racial difference alone. White residents keep a paranoid vigil outside the Mayers’ home on the family’s first night in Suburbicon. By the film’s end, fences ostensibly built to keep these black neighbors out of view become the last line of defense for the African American family. When a riot breaks out, the fence becomes a dam holding back violent white rage—an outpouring of the interior lives of fear-driven residents who’ve lost their mooring to reality.

As a film critic who appreciates the Coen brothers, Suburbicon was not the movie I anticipated. Given the Coens’ reputations for comedy, not just social commentary, the film certainly ranks among the least playful to bear their writing credit. Moments of Coen-ness peek through here and there but don’t last. (One of the longest gags in the film is a chase scene that features Damon’s Gardner riding a child’s bicycle as if his life depended on it—which it does.)

Despite being a tale of two families besieged by tragedy, the film fails to capitalize on all that dramatic potential and instead feels emotionally flat. Something is missing from Gardner, as well as the rest of Suburbicon’scharacters: Not only are few of them likable as human beings, none of them are all that enjoyable to watch. The quirky characters of Coen films are often developed with a certain affection or at least amusement—from Norm Gunderson of Fargo to the nihilists of TheBig Lebowski. In Suburbicon, by contrast, Nicky is the only character for whom we can muster any affection. The performances are serviceable but not engaging, the dialogue smart but not memorable, the characters idiosyncratic but not much fun.

After opening weekend, the film’s audience approval score on Rotten Tomatoes is hovering near an impressively low 25 percent. USA Today’s entertainment section has provided coverage of how bad the film’s reception has been. The parallel between the Lodge and Mayers families, in particular, has drawn heavy criticism.

Although the Mayers family subplot is often generally interpreted by critics as a forced and feeble reflection on the racist failures of the 1950s, I found that “watching-while-Christian” allowed me to see it as something more…

Read the rest at christianitytoday.com

This article originally published at christianitytoday.com, November 3, 2017

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The American (2010 film)

I’d been wanting to see The American and with HBO on demand, I finally did.  The American is that assassin picture starring George Clooney–the one with the cool, sort of ’70s-throwback-looking movie poster.

The poster did on its job, luring me in with a visual cue back to the tense psychological and political thrillers of 30 or 40 years ago.   

But as it turns out the poster could be used as a metaphor for the whole viewing experience.   It visually conveys  tension using a retro aesthetic but gives you no sense of character and little hint of plot.

These are strong words from a gal who sincerely likes 70s political drama.  Sure, a lot of people did at the time, but have you seen one lately?  By today’s standards, these things move like molasses.  I’m a believer in that slow narrative pacing, however.  I’m a fan of those long takes with little dialogue.  Those movies were about intense situations in uncertain, even paranoid political times.  There is arguably something brilliant in making you stew in anticipation just like the people you’re watching on screen.  Seriously: I’m the person who actually likes Klute, a movie so slow that after it, my husband announced a 3 month moratorium on renting 70s films.  

But The American tried my patience.  Not so much because I can’t be a patient viewer (see above endorsement of Klute), but because I need a reason to be patient.  Don’t ask me to stare at a guy who talks about as much as Clint Eastwood in a spaghetti western and then not deliver on a reasonable reason to care about him.

The American started strong but began to sputter mid-way.  I felt the urge to bail when it became apparent that the relationship through which we are, presumably, supposed to root for Jack (Clooney) to find relief (redemption is beyond his reach) is with the prostitute he’s just met.   I do not have a blanket policy against sympathy with prostitute characters (again, see Klute endorsement above).  But I failed to connect with whatever was supposed to be going on here.  He sleeps with her twice.  The second time we have to sit through a soft-porn-ish scene of him “pleasuring her.” [Why do polite terms for such actions always sound like junior high health class?]  This intimacy is immediately followed by a terse exchange that seems to undo the implication of, well, intimacy.  And then for the rest of the picture to work, we need to believe in and root for them to find a way out of their unsatisfying lives and be together.  It’s totally absurd.  Not only as a concept, but in its execution.  The chemistry between these two is not strong enough to persuade us to overlook how under-written this implausible arc is.   And when the writing kicks in, it’s predictable and heavy-handed.  Biggest eye-roller: When Jack asks Clara to run away with him, she actually asks him if they could be together [breathily] forever.   Aww… really?

Of course, we’re probably supposed to be okay with the weakness of this romantic, escapist undercurrent because the movie also sets up a suspenseful (or suspensefully shot) plotline about unearthing who is trying to assassinate our gun-toting leading man.  But the answer is too obvious, too soon.   I worried far less about who was after Clooney and whether he would survive than I did about, say, Donald Sutherland in Klute (sorry, couldn’t resist).

The American hits all the aesthetic marks creating the feeling of an intentionally well-shot, intentionally broody, intentionally plodding film.  But it does little to back up its intention to tell us a good story.

I should have trusted the instinct to bail when I had the chance.