The screenplay for SUBURBICON was written by the formidable Coen Brothers in the mid 1990’s (around the time they wrote the brilliant, dual Oscar-winning FARGO) and it has now come to screen courtesy of George Clooney who directs but does not appear.  It marks his sixth directorial endeavor and this time around he has done a fair job in one regard while failing somewhat in another.


The story is set in America in the 1950’s and commences as a flood of white, middle-class buyers hastily snapping up cookie-cutter homes in a brand new Norman Rockwell style dream development known as Suburbicon.  Among them is finance executive Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) who lives with his wheelchair-bound blonde wife Rose (Julianne Moore) and their delightful 11 year old son Nicky (Noah Jupe.)  Rose’s twin sister Margaret, a brunette also played by Moore, visits regularly and everything seems 1950’s idyllic.  Until one evening a brutal home invasion occurs with two thugs chloroforming all four residents while they ransack the house.  But while Gardner, Nicky and Margaret recover, Rose dies in hospital as result of the anaesthetic. 


Now we enter that classic Coen territory as Margaret soon moves in to the house and Gardner’s bed (“Nicky needs a mother you know”) and dyes her hair a Hitchcock blonde.  But as the plot develops, two elements arise that indicate there was more at work than a simple home invasion.  Young Nicky is harboring suspicions that his father deliberately arranged for his mother’s death, and just as her life insurance is due to be paid out, a company investigator (played with sleazy brilliance by Oscar Isaac) arrives at the house because he smells a rat.


Had the film stayed with this storyline it would probably have been another satirical triumph.  But Clooney and Grant Heslov have grafted on a subplot about racism that while commendable in bringing the situation to light, does not sit easily within the blistering parody of 1950’s suburbia.  The Lodge’s new neighbors are an African American family named the Meyers and the couple have a son Andy who is Nicky’s age. From the day of their arrival, angry white mobs gathered every night outside the Meyer home brandishing confederate flags and lit torches and each day brings outright discrimination of Mrs. Meyers from supermarkets, postmen, tradesmen and the like. (This is clearly modeled on the actual race riots engendered in August 1957 by the arrival of a black family, the Myers, in the intentionally all white enclave of Levittown, Pennsylvania.) 


This inclusion seems grafted on and they make uneasy narrative bedfellows robbing the film of tonal consistency.  The pitch black caustic lampooning of the suburban satire that references Noir classics like DOUBLE INDEMNITY and THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE sits awkwardly beside the grim racism and it as if one was watching two different films blended together.


That said, there are pluses.  Alexandre Desplat’s edgy music score that commences in a jazzy feel soon evokes Bernard Herrmann’s violins as the body count rises.  The costumes by Jenny Eagan and production design by James D. Bissell recreate a flawless 1950’s world and the stellar cast are strong with young newcomer Noah Jupe giving an inspired turn as the increasingly desperate and panicked Nicky.


At the film’s commencement as the fluid camerawork of Robert Elswit glided effortlessly over the identical abodes, with identical manicured lawns, I immediately thought of the 1962 Malvina Reynolds song: “Little Boxes”…” and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky and they all look just the same.”





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