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…

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

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ICYMI ‘The Beguiled’ Reveals the Cracks in Our Imagined Selves

Sofia Coppola’s Cannes winner is all about the inevitable gap between who we are and who we claim to be.

The year is 1864. Somewhere in Virginia, a young girl walks through the woods, singing herself a sweetly imperfect melody. Viewers watch from behind as her small figure, head and shoulders framed by long brunette braids, bends, then bends again to collect mushrooms from the forest floor. The camera pans upward revealing tree branches arching and entwined, the vaults of a natural cathedral illuminated by the pale, even light of dusk. The girl walks unhurried down its aisle. The scene serves up a lush aesthetic world, stirring anticipation for what other visual delights await the viewer, even as it stirs anxiety for what awaits this forest wanderer.

The sight of a Union soldier propped up against a tree soon breaks the child’s reverie. A flicker of fear passes across both of their faces. Tension begins to ease as they grasp the common tool of social formalities and force an exceptional moment into following the script for making a new acquaintance. Miss Amy (Oona Laurence) and Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) introduce themselves: She is a student at a nearby girls’ school; he is a wounded runaway from a nearby battle.

Despite—or perhaps because of—his considerable charm, the Corporal comes across as only a little less vulnerable than the schoolgirl. He is, after all, bleeding profusely and hiding for fear of both the battlefield’s violence and the enemy’s capture. Guilelessly, Miss Amy assures him that the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies will take him in. Making their way toward the school, the hobbled man leans on the good graces and steady shoulders of the 12-year-old girl.

The Beguiled’s opening sequence is only the first of a series of compassionate and trusting interactions that lead to unsettling results. This artful and entertaining film meditates on the difference between how things appear and what they actually are. The action begins as a handful of Southern women nurse a wounded Union solider within the confines of their home. The man’s convalescence forces a series of difficult decisions about managing his presence, as well as when and how to ask him to leave. Ultimately, the matter of the Corporal’s exit incites crises of escalating intensity that drive the second half of the film toward a surprising resolution.

Director, screenwriter, and Cannes award winner Sofia Coppola’s dedication to sustaining a kind of visual enchantment is clear to the audience at once. So, too, is Coppola’s canny use of familiar character types to tell a story that hinges on hard-to-detect motives that lie within, like desire and dread. Coppola’s characters act on honorable impulses and risk trusting one another in the name of Christian virtues like charity, hospitality, mercy, and gratitude. Slowly, however, a space widens between the intentions they profess and the temptations which also shape their responses to one another. The theme of a duality between whom we tell ourselves we are and what our actions testify about us resonates throughout the narrative.

The Beguiled is a tale of people and circumstances being what they seem yet also far more. The same can be said of the movie’s genre identity: What is evidently a period melodrama also proves a dark thriller with a surprisingly keen sense of comedy. Its first hour packs in as many awkward exchanges, subtle innuendos, and knowing glances as any good comedy of manners. (Each of the three dinner scenes would do Jane Austen proud.) Coppola’s writing does an admirable job of making these genre transitions smoothly by tying them to the evolving situation of Farrell’s McBurney: The vulnerable convalescent transforms into a charming houseguest, and then into something far more complex.

McBurney’s transformation happens subtly but steadily, despite his physical incapacitation. Having been installed on the fainting couch of the Farnsworth Seminary’s music room, Corporal McBurney is subject to the ministrations of the six women living in the largely abandoned boarding school. Literally locked away and convalescing in the same spot for days, he entertains a parade of pale, pastel-clad women of different ages at his bedside. Each one furtively enters bearing some bit of news or help—water for a bath, soap for a shave, fresh bandages for his leg, even an unbidden kiss. The youngest piously slips him a prayer book, explaining that he’ll need it to make confession since he’s wounded and, by her estimation, likely to die very soon.

The repetition of this scenario is important: It highlights the constraints of McBurney’s situation. His knowledge of the school, the women in it, and their dispositions toward him are meted out to him in uneven portions during the visits he receives at all hours. Immobilized and locked into his room, his experience raises questions once again about appearances and realities: He is at once fussed-about patient, caged curiosity, charming bachelor, and enemy prisoner.

Meanwhile, each member in the trio of headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), and restless ingénue Alicia (Elle Fanning) is very much whom she appears to be and more. The women compose a triangle that slowly takes shape around Corporal McBurney. Not quite a “love triangle” (it has more angles, and the romantic claims are shifting and indistinct), the rivalry arises as a byproduct of the desire that each one has for a male presence in her life.

McBurney faces both the opportunity and misfortune of having triggered these women’s longings. The opportunity, initially, is to stand simultaneously as a placeholder in their fantasies. His misfortune, in the end, is that of being only one man, incapable of satisfying any of the three women once reality takes hold…

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originally run by Christianity Today July 11, 2017

Westworld Stages a Consciousness Raising

HBO’s new hit show riffs on one of Second Wave feminism’s signature tactics

At the start of the pilot it was Dolores.  At the start of this weekend’s episode, Maeve.

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Images from Westworld via The Week

These shots of two of Westworld’s central characters waking up help visually underscore the narrative parallels of these two characters. As stereotypes of women they represent the Westworld poles of the madonna/whore dichotomy. Both are attractive to a number of the park’s visitors, though one for her romantic innocence as much as the other for her worldly knowing.

The similar shots of waking also provide us reminders that Westworld is a story in no small part about androids waking up to their circumstances as objects designed for entertainment that are also frequently objects of desire, sex, and violence.

The theme of awakening to the true structure of their reality is also echoed in the script followed by employees performing diagnostic interviews with “hosts” in the corporate laboratory.  In this set-piece, the host in question (often Dolores) answers the question, “Do you know where you are?” with, “Yes, I am in a dream.”

Thus the movement between the real world as dream and the “awake” world of the Westworld theme park takes on irony and existential weight for main characters Dolores and Maeve.

Viewers can expect that as these women awaken to their circumstances, something in the narrative world will change.

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And that expectation feels like a pop cultural legacy of Second Wave feminism to me.   Continue reading Westworld Stages a Consciousness Raising