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 ‘Atomic Blond’ Delivers Female Action without a Hero

I’ve been Terrible about keeping blog followers in sync with my few essays from the summer.  Pardons begged for old news if you caught this on Christianity Today last month but also if you didn’t get word of it until now.  Thanks for following!

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After seeing the new spy thriller, I still don’t know what a female action hero looks like

Many moviegoers turn to the absurdities of comedy or the happy endings of romance when looking for an escape. I’m more of a guns and explosions kind of girl, so I’d been looking forward to Atomic Blonde, the Cold War espionage thriller starring Charlize Theron as MI6 operative Lorraine Broughton.

Atomic Blonde is a highly stylized, spy-versus-spy picture based on a graphic novel. Though shot in color, the film relies on a restrained color palette and boasts carefully blocked frames and noir-inspired lighting. Set in the divided Berlin of 1989, the film also draws on an array of ’80s references, from shoulder-exposing sweatshirts and stiletto ankle boots to a soundtrack so full of beloved ’80s hits that licensing them all ranks as one of the film’s most impressive stunts.

As if in tribute to the Soviet enemies of the Cold War, the film’s plot has taken the form of so many Russian nesting dolls: Each new layer of the tale opens up to reveal another hidden inside. The crisis that sends Agent Broughton to Berlin involves a murdered MI6 agent and a missing list of all the undercover intelligence operatives in the city. Both East and West are willing to kill for the list (and do), as it poses both a security threat to their operations and an opportunity to gain the upper hand.

The list is also believed to reveal the identity of a Soviet double agent who has infiltrated MI6. While the Brits know codename “Satchel” exists, they’ve been unable to find and eliminate the traitor. In addition to the female lead, the characters involved in untangling the plot include Broughton’s fellow British spy, David Percival (played as a charming maniac by James McAvoy), a handful of East German, West German, and Russian spies that become hard to keep straight, and the CIA (embodied by John Goodman).

The cageyness and cunning of spy films is part of their fun, but this film’s number of betrayals stacks up almost as fast as its body count. After one last clever reveal that comes in the final scene, viewers get the answers to all of the story’s riddles, save one: Why should I root for Lorraine Broughton? …

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The Crown: Balancing Family and Calling Is a Royal Pain

The Netflix series focuses on the pressure around the monarch’s marriage.
I recall sitting with my mother in my childhood living room and watching Diana Spencer—about to be Princess Diana—walk slowly down the aisle toward the altar and her prince. The year was 1981, and despite my tender age, the princess fantasy did not take hold. Nor did I become a “royals watcher”… at least not until Netflix released its Queen Elizabeth II bio series, The Crown, earlier this month.

Why the change of heart? Maybe it was the promise of seeing Elizabeth, now the longest-reigning monarch in British history, as a young woman. Maybe it was the heady feminist air as the series debuted, just days before the US—it seemed—might elect its first female president. For others, maybe a love for British period dramas is enough to pull them in.

Since I’ve been aware of the royal family, of course, but not particularly interested before, the effect of the series has been something like moving a piece of furniture in your grandparents’ house only to find that behind that bookcase, the wallpaper you’d taken for granted your whole upbringing had at one time been far more bold and colorful than you’d ever realized. It’s enough to make you question the assumptions you’ve made about what sort of stories the walls would tell if they could talk.

The Crown attempts to tell those almost forgotten bits of the queen’s life that transpired before she ascended the throne and took on a relentlessly public life for the next 64 years. It begins with her marriage to Prince Philip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh, in 1947 and is chiefly concerned with Elizabeth’s life during her 20s, including her coronation at a mere 25 years old and finding her footing with Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The Crown brings into focus how much the story of Elizabeth’s transition into leadership is also the story of refining her marriage. Much like the images of gold being poured out and cast into a new shape that accompany the opening credits, the union of Elizabeth and Philip is remade in dramatic fashion. […]

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originally published at ChristianityToday.com December 2, 2016.