What the hell happened here? How is it possible that a movie written by the Coen brothers (who are responsible for one of my favorite films of all time, No Country for Old Men), directed by George Clooney (who is most notable for having a jaw larger than my car), and boasting talent like Julianne Moore, Matt Damon, and Oscar Isaac, could be this boring? This real-world mystery is far more intriguing than anything that happens throughout the course of Suburbicon.
Suburbicon is a confused, boring, uneven mess of a movie. It wants to be social/racial satire on the level of Get Out, as well as a hometown crime story like Fargo. The problem here is that it completely face plants in its efforts on both fronts. The racial commentary is ham-fisted and obvious, the characters are such reprehensibly awful people across the board that I found myself rooting for the entire town to just explode a la Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and the plot doesn’t so much unfold as dribble along.
You may consider this a SPOILER WARNING, In order to really dig into why this movie is such a mess, I will be discussing events from all points in the story, including the end. If you are dead set on seeing Suburbicon, please stop reading here. But seriously, don’t see Suburbicon.
Still here? Okay, 3,2,1, spoilers.
So the story kicks off with a fairly clever little “ad” for the idyllic city of Suburbicon, boasting residents from such diverse corners of the globe as Ohio, New York, and even Mississippi! In case you couldn’t tell, this is setup for the racial component of the film as well as exposition for the setting. At this point, somewhere in my head that now feels far away and so, so young, I thought, “Neat! They’re going to touch on racial topics in this movie! So far it’s been pretty subtle, I hope they can keep this up!” Little did I know that racism is handled in Suburbicon with about as much finesse as a white man screaming “RACISM” at you for roughly 45 minutes.
The entire racial storyline basically unfolds thusly: black family moves into Suburbicon, white people don’t like it much, they start trying to make so much noise that the black family will just want to leave, black family doesn’t want to leave, a massive riot breaks out, cars are burned, windows are broken, and confederate flags are tossed.
Are you ready for the kicker? The only way that literally any of that is related to the actual story of the film is that the kid from the black family and the kid from Matt Damon’s family occasionally play baseball together. THAT’S IT. THERE IS NO OTHER RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THESE STORYLINES. At no other point does the race riot plot ever impact, influence, or even have anything at all to do with the actual story of the film.
The real plotline is actually far worse than I could have predicted. After watching the trailers, I had (perhaps naïvely) assumed that Matt Damon would be playing a stereotypical suburban dad who owed money to the mob. I further assumed that they would come and kill his wife, and he would haphazardly and comically try to take them on. Nope. No such luck. You win again, misleading marketing (mother! reference).
In fact, Suburbicon plays far more like an early scrapped draft for Fargo than any version of the above assumed plot. Matt Damon plays suburban dad, and he is married to Julianne Moore. Julianne Moore has a sister, who is also played by Julianne Moore. As it turns out, Matt Damon and other Julianne Moore hired two hitmen to kill original Julianne Moore so that they could collect the life insurance money and run away to Aruba. Why, you may be asking, are both sisters played by Julianne Moore? Well, dear reader, I’m afraid that yet again, there is no point. This amazing coincidence has literally nothing to do with the story, and has zero impact on the way the plot develops.
Oscar Isaac plays the one enjoyable character in the film, the insurance claims investigator, and he is given the least screen time of anybody here. His character is appropriately sleazy and greasy, but his dramatic (read: sarcasm) story is cut short when he is poisoned by Julianne Moore, and bashed in the face by Matt Damon with a fire poker in the middle of the street (which is miraculously seen by nobody, because of course it wasn’t.).
It is also worth noting that Suburbicon has exactly zero characters that we have any reason to care about or root for. Matt Damon is a terrible human being; a charmless, emotionless man who kills his wife for money and her sister’s love (I guess?), kills an insurance agent in the street, and threatens to kill his son if he doesn’t go along with the plan. Other Julianne Moore is an insane person who tries to kill the insurance agent with dish-washing chemicals, and tries to kill the son by crushing up prescription medications and mixing them into his milk. Aside: she also puts a huge dollop of it in the middle of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and then just closes it up without spreading it around or anything. How is this kid not supposed to notice that? It’s a massive ball of white powder on a sandwich that, last time I checked, did not have white powder as one of its major ingredients.
The only remaining characters ever given much time are: Uncle Whatshisname (who hilariously dies from a Halloween prop quality knife wound to the back), the son (who is mostly just there to provide stakes for anything going on), and the black family (who have no character to speak of other than that they are black, which is not an acceptable character definition). The city of Suburbicon, which in different hands could have been as much of a character as the settings of far superior films like Fargo, Lost in Translation, City of God, or even Blade Runner, is more or less wasted in service of the terrible story. The only positive thing I have to say here is that the production design was admittedly excellent, and the period recreation felt wonderfully nostalgic and atmospheric.
So what the hell happened here? My current working theory is that George Clooney approached the Coen brothers, looking for something from the acclaimed writers to help keep his directing career afloat. The brothers, currently hard at work on some other project, just gave him access to their dusty old box of shelved ideas. From this mystical box, he drew an unfinished, red marked, and ultimately discarded manuscript marked: Suburbicon. He of the jaw then thought to himself… “Yes… yes, this is it. It will be my Fargo, and it was written by the guys who wrote Fargo! What could possibly go wrong??” Then Suburbicon happened. At least that’s how I imagine it. The reality is probably far less like the first act of an adventure film.
Okay, so up to this point I’ve essentially just ranted about everything here that didn’t work. The question remains, why? To begin with, I think it has a lot to do with the fact that there are exactly zero likable characters. In a story like this, it is important to have characters who we can either hate enough to want them to fail, or who are relatable enough that we can want them to succeed. Additionally, there is absolutely zero charm to the story here. Things, often terrible and morbid things, happen, then the story just kind of moves on. This is a serious problem, because it leaves the audience completely unsure about how they are supposed to be feeling. Is this a twisted dark comedy? Am I meant to be laughing at the man burning alive? Or is this a drama? Am I meant to fear Matt Damon? If I need to wonder how I’m meant to perceive anything going on in your film, you’ve not made a good film.
Fargo had a great understanding of this. Its main character was completely out of his element, and was essentially just being dragged along by the consequences of his hair-brained scheme. The result was a hilarious film filled with characters you actually enjoyed watching, and a protagonist to whom you felt some semblance of attachment. We never hated him for all of the awful things he did, because he never really meant for anybody to get hurt. He was just trying to get some money, and came up with a really, really bad plan to do it. This is absolutely not the case with Suburbicon. Suburbicon centers on terrible people who have done a terrible thing for terrible reasons, and then proceed to keep doing terrible things (with no remorse) in order to try to stay afloat. There is no attachment here, no sympathy, no emotion whatsoever.
Then we arrive at the tacked-on racial subplot. To be honest, it’s almost insulting that the filmmakers thought that they could just throw some half-baked racial commentary into their film and expect people to respond to it as if it were an actual statement. In a different film, a story about a black family’s struggles after they moved into a fictionalized “idyllic” town could have been absolutely fascinating. In fact, I would love to see that movie. That movie would be interesting (which Suburbicon is not). That movie might have been insightful (which Suburbicon is not). That movie might even have been entertaining (which Suburbicon, you guessed it, is most certainly not).
It is genuinely difficult to watch Suburbicon and not come away from the experience thoroughly frustrated. It is hard to imagine such a capable team creating such an incompetent film. It is just as hard to imagine anybody watching the final cut and saying, “Yeah! Seems good enough to me! What about you George?” We may never know what went so horribly wrong behind the scenes, but perhaps it is better not to dwell on what may have been. As it stands though, aside from some well done period set dressing, Suburbicon fails at everything it sets out to do, and takes the throne as one of the most unenjoyable films of the year.