Dir: George Clooney, 104 mins, starring Matt Damon, Oscar Isaac, Julianne Moore
There is a telling scene in George Clooney’s Suburbicon, which had its world premiere at the Venice Festival this weekend. An upstanding family man is spotted late at night, pedalling a bicycle down the tree-lined streets of his home town. Asked what he is doing, he blithely replies that he is “out for a ride”.
What he doesn’t explain is why his shirt is caked in blood and why he has been trying to hide the corpse of a murdered man.
Suburbicon is surely Clooney’s finest film as a director since Good Night And Good Luck. Co-scripted by the Coen brothers, it is both wildly entertaining in its own macabre, violent fashion, and also very perceptive about racism and hypocrisy in middle-class white America.
Although set in the 1950s, it feels timely given recent events involving white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia. In one of the film’s less subtle moments, we see rioters draping the Confederate flag on a window sill of the home of the black family they want to kick out of their cosy suburban neighbourhood.
The film unfolds in Suburbicon, a model town founded in 1947. The town has every amenity imaginable, including a first-rate hospital and even in its own choir. The townsfolk are living their version of the post-war American dream, and basking in a new era of consumer affluence. They are cheerful and hyper-friendly – at least until the black family moves in. “We don’t want them here,” the white folk quickly make very clear.
Matt Damon plays yet another all-American type. His character, Gardner Lodge, is a seemingly affluent husband and father with a 10-year-old son, Nicky (Noah Jupe.) His wife Nancy is in a wheelchair, and her lookalike sister Margaret (Julianne Moore) is also living with them.
Gardner couldn’t be more wholesome and upstanding – or at least, that is how it appears. When two thugs break into their house, we begin to see different, less savoury sides of his character
This may be bright, sunny, Eisenhower-era America, but the filmmakers go out of their way to show its dark underbelly in as comic a way as possible. We’re in a world in which husbands have affairs, spank their lovers with ping pong bats in their basements and plot all sorts of murderous misdeeds.
The storyline here is every bit as far-fetched as those found in the melodramatic operas that the insurance investigator (Oscar Issac) so enjoys.
Clooney fills Suburbicon with Hitchcock-like touches and references to film noir: a killing witnessed by a character hiding under a bed, who can only see the shoes of the victim; suspenseful scenes in which we never quite know who is going to eat the poison first; ominous close-ups of knives and guns, and lots of pounding music at the most climactic moments.
The increasingly bizarre and psychopathic behaviour of the adults is witnessed by the boy (played with wonderful wide-eyed innocence by Jupe).
There are two parallel narratives here. One (full of sex, murder and conspiracy) involves the Lodge family. The other deals with the victimisation of their black neighbours. “You’d think we were in Mississippi,” one character observes as the liberal-seeming white folk build walls around the black family’s home, refuse to sell them food in the supermarket, and taunt and intimidate them in merciless fashion.
The darker the storytelling becomes, the funnier the movie gets. Julianne Moore gives a perfectly judged comic performance as a Barbara Stanwyck-like femme fatale,whose only drawback is that she is so utterly dimwitted. Damon is droll but increasingly creepy as the repressed family man who dreams of living on the beach in Aruba. Oscar Issac is in an energetic groove as the insurance investigator who has a nose for fraudulent claims.
Clooney, his co-writer Grant Heslow and the Coen brothers are paying their own twisted compliment to the citizens of Suburbicon. They’re showing that these conformist middle-class Americans have far more imagination and capacity for mischief than anyone could have guessed.
They may be covertly racist, they may struggle to express themselves – but given half a chance, they’ll manage to leave utter carnage in their wake.
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