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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Netflix’s Bloodline Addictive despite Initial Indications to the Contrary

I turned it on reluctantly.  I’d read one so-so review and a seen one not-so-tantalizing trailer promising a drama about family secrets in a manner I found overdrawn.  It seemed a little, well, hokey.

Still for the past several days, I find my imagination returning to Netflix’s latest (meant to be be binged) streaming TV series Bloodline.  After watching the first two episodes back-to-back, I resolved to limit myself to one episode a day so I can roll them around a bit, can continue to feel their presence after they’ve gone, like either a good friend or a bad whiskey (though I confess which I’m not exactly sure).

Continue reading Netflix’s Bloodline Addictive despite Initial Indications to the Contrary

Belgian Salamander’s Appealingly Untrendy Approach to Suspense

Salamander is one of those programs you find only because (unlike lots of the mainstream stuff you logged on hoping to find) Netflix is offering it on their streaming service. I clicked through to this Belgian suspense tale I’d never heard of on the promise of its nearly five-star user rating. As I approach the end of the series’ one season’s worth of episodes thus far consumed in a rapid one-week binge, I have started to reflect on what about it is special.

From the start that program participates in that admirable European tradition of actually casting normal-looking, middle-aged humans and treating them like they can believably represent interesting, complicated, and, yes, sexy people.

My now several hours with the series is also certainly the longest time I ever spent listening to people speak Flemish—to my ear a fascinating aural mash-up of French and German phonemes but hardly the reason I’ve been compulsively returning to my laptop. When I consider Salamander and what I am enjoying about it, these foreign distinctives are not at the top of the list.

I’ve realized that escaping into this Brussels-based mystery is less like watching good television from another country than it is like watching good television from another time. Let me be clear: the series is by no means outdated in its look, its brisk pace, or its long-format approach to storytelling. But it manages to spin its yarn without a lot of the latest concerns that define paranoia culture and without any of the narrative crutches that have become fashionable on American primetime. Continue reading Belgian Salamander’s Appealingly Untrendy Approach to Suspense