During the most effective scenes in George Clooney’s new thriller Suburbicon, an African-American family feels the full brunt of racial unrest in 1950s America after moving into the titular all-white suburban neighborhood.
It begins with hushed gasps and sideways glances and a few locals hanging out around their new home after hours, eyeing the family from a pickup truck. Later, Mom (Karimah Westbrook) is forced to buy groceries elsewhere after being refused service by a local shopkeeper.
By the end of the film, the situation has developed into a full-blown riot, with the family hiding in their storm shelter while a mob of angry white folks pelt their house with bottles and debris and set fire to their car, the local police force unable to do much to stave them off.
But this affecting material, drawn from real-world events, is a mere backdrop for the actual storyline in Suburbicon, which involves the white family next door: Dad Gardner (Matt Damon), Mom Rose and Aunt Margaret (both played by Juianne Moore), and young son Nicky (Noah Jupe, who also starred in The Man with the Iron Heart).
After a menacing visit from a pair of goons (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell), the family finds themselves embroiled in the kind of complicated plot worthy of the Coen Brothers, who initially wrote the script back the 1980s before Clooney and longtime writing partner Grant Heslov took a crack at it.
No beating around the bush: compared to the real-life violence occurring next door, the main plot of Suburbicon feels artificial at best and insensitive at worst.
But it holds our interest due to an unusual point-of-view: told from the perspective of the young son, key information is initially withheld, and only slowly hinted at, with plot points garnered via conversations overheard from between the balusters at the top of the staircase.
Jupe’s central character is one of only a few in the film worth caring about, and has a few nice scenes of childlike innocence with his new African-American friend next door (Tony Espinosa), oblivious to the irrational fears that plague the rest of the town.
Clooney’s point here is that while all the townsfolk are concerned with new black family in the neighborhood, the real issues – murder, fraud, and more – are coming from within.
And bitterest irony of all, when the real perpetrators are finally revealed by the end, the African-American family still bears the blame. “This kind of thing never happened before they moved into Suburbicon,” one bystander remarks to a reporter.
As a director, few of Clooney’s films (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Leatherheads, The Ides of March, The Monuments Men) have garnered wide praise, with the possible exception of Good Night and Good Luck.
Suburbicon follows in that tradition, and while this difficult material may not completely work as intended – it’s easy to see why the Coen Brothers never made this themselves, in favor of similar but less-divisive films like Fargo – there’s still a lot of good in here.
As manufactured as the main storyline in Suburbicon feels, it maintains interest throughout and helps sell the scathing satire at the heart of the film.