Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 44 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 0.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
The Lord has made himself known, he has executed judgment;
the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands.
Their feet run to evil, and they rush to shed innocent blood;
their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity,
desolation and destruction are in their highways.
The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths.
Their roads they have made crooked;
no one who walks in them knows peace.
Both in regard to authorship, themes, and genre this intriguing film is a hybrid. Director George Clooney, staying strictly behind the camera, has partnered with Grant Heslov to adapt an old script by Joel and Ethan Coen to produce a film that is satire, period piece, bloody film noir, and social justice commentary, set in 1959 at the dawn of the Civil Rights era. As might be expected from such mixing of genres, critics have both praised and damned the film.
The satire is evident at the beginning with a faux documentary about a new Levittown-like community patterned after the kind of promo piece that prospective home buyers would be shown after a promised free lunch and tour. The slightly faded colors look like the picture-ads appearing in Colliers or The Saturday Evening Post back then. “Suburbia,” the customers are told, is a safe place with complete services—lovely suburban homes and sidewalks, its own police and fire departments, a bus shuttle service, a stately church and a supermarket. It is truly a sanctuary from the outside world, a place where all the white-skinned residents look like they belong in a Norman Rockwell cover of the Saturday Evening Post. (Probably most of them are among its readership.)
However, in the next sequence the outside world intrudes. William (Leith M. Burke) and Daisy Mayers (Karimah Westbrook) have just moved into their dream house, causing everyone to stare in disbelief. The jolly mail man walks up to their door and can hardly speak when Mrs. Mayers greets him. She is a “Negro!” This place of refuge was designed for whites to escape from her kind. Apparently he thinks she is a servant, but quickly realizing that she LIVES there, in his confusion he starts to walk away, so that she has to ask him to leave her mail.
That very night the community hall is filled with angry white protestors, a scene played for its humor by having the bigots use the very language of the new-born Civil Rights Movement (remember, just 3 years earlier the Montgomery Bus Boycott ended with victory for the blacks). One white protestor claims they are fighting for their “civil rights” as home-owners, and another promises that “if we persist, we shall overcome!”
Next door is the residence of the Lodges–Gardner (Matt Damon), his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), her almost twin sister Margaret (Rose is blond, whereas Margaret is brunette)), and son Nicky (Noah Jupe). Rose is confined to a wheelchair because of a car accident. As the two sisters and Nicky sit out behind their house, they can see the Mayer’s son Andy (Tony Espinosa) tending to a chore. At Rose’s insistence Nicky reluctantly goes over to the split-rail fence and cautiously asks if Andy wants to play ball. Thus begins the only friendship that a Mayer will enjoy during their tumultuous stay in Suburbicon.
Rose is obviously very different from the other white residents who, as the film progresses, grow increasingly hostile toward the Mayers. Unfortunately, she is not on the scene for long, at which point the film turns into a film noir. We meet the Lodges in the midst of a home invasion. Gardner wakes up Nicky, telling him, “There are men in the house.” Two thugs (Glenn Flesher and Alex Hassell) tie all the family to kitchen chairs and then place over their mouths a cloth doused with chloroform. When Nicky wakes up, he finds himself in a hospital bed, his father informing him that his mother, due to her weak heart, has died. At the funeral vulgar Uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) tries to comfort his nephew with some silly horseplay and the assurance he is there for the boy.
Margaret takes her sister’s place in the family, with very little mourning by Gardner, so we quickly become aware of their collusion with the home invaders. When the police call asking that they come down to the station to identify in a line-up possible suspects, Nicky is with Gardner and Rose. They tell him to wait in the hall while they go inside with the inspector. The curious boy sneaks in anyway, and is speechless when the pair declare that they do not recognize anyone in the line-up. On the end are both thugs that had terrorized them a few nights earlier!
The film moves quickly through its film noir mode, complete with a police detective often contacting Gardner, the two thugs seeking to eliminate Nicky because they fear he will give them away, and an insurance agent (Oscar Isaac) convinced that Gardner has contracted to have his wife killed for the death benefits. And threaded throughout are scenes of mobs loudly demonstrating outside the Mayers’ home in order to scare them out of the neighborhood. Both story lines conclude in violence. In the social justice segment, those involved seemed to have learned a little from the fiery incident they had caused, but for the wicked characters in the film noir story it is too late to learn anything—they are like those described by the prophet in Isaiah 58—and, as the Psalmist wrote, “the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands.”
It is unfortunate that the character of the Mayers are so sketchy, the parents, especially Mr. Mayers, shown only as cowering victims, and not as the racial pioneers they must have been to have made such a bold move in the later 50s—but then, this more of a satire or parody than a social justice film seriously looking at our racial past. In a social justice film also I am sure the NAACP or the Urban League would have been involved supporting the Mayers.
Film noir, popular from the 30s to the end of the 50s, is filled with cynical characters engaged in acts of illicit sex and brutality, and yet such films usually conclude with the evil characters getting their come-uppance. For example, in the classic The Postman Always Rings Twice, a drifter named Frank working at a diner owned by Nick enters into an adulterous affair with Nick’s wife Cora. After failing once, they manage to kill Nick so she can gain control of and improve the diner. The local D.A. suspects them of murder, but cannot prove it. Then Fate (or God) steps in, and one of them is killed and the other wrongly accused of murder, tried, sentenced and executed, the whole story being told by the about-to-die survivor. We see this in Suburbicon as well. As in the time of the Psalmist, “the wicked are snared in the work of their own hands.” Although the film is flawed, it is nonetheless worth seeing and discussing.
This review with a set of questions is in the November 2017 issue of VP.