by Iñaki Oñate
Suburbicon (2017) is not exactly a film that follows the tradition of mystery in American crime films; it’s more of a paroxystic homage to the genre and its stereotypes with a pinch of social comedy and a failed attempt at a morality check.
American suburbia is the place where family values are still indelible. The place where the worst thing that can happen is a turbulent divorce. There is no other setting as perfect as this for concealing a cruel, sadistic, extremely violent American crime. A place where appereances, every now and then, fall into pieces.
In the late ’50s, a calm middle-class American neighbourhood is taken by
surprise by the inclusion of an African-American family into their community. While the people in the neighborhood are focused on their worries and discomfort with the new presence, the neighboring house, property of Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), is taken by surprise on its own right when two robbers break into it one late night. Gardner lives with his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), Rose’s twin sister Margaret (also Moore) and his little son Nicky (Noah Jupe). The robbery ends up with a casualty that eventually unfolds into something dark and sinister and whose main investigator to some degree will be little Nicky.
The film could be considered somewhat of a mixture of an opera, a crime movie and a satire of American values. I would compare it to the sequence of Bugs Bunny at the barber shop, “attending” Elmer Fudd to the tune of Rossini’s Barber of Seville, but adding an ending where either 1) Bugs Bunny beheads Elmer with the razor and hides the body under the shop or 2) Elmer finally kills Bugs with his shotgun, the mirror of the barber shop covered in bits of the colorful bunny. No harm done to Chuck Jones‘s imaginarium: I love Bugs but I am just tryning to find an analogy for the contrast between the pretty funny and the pretty mean.
There is that pictorical-plastic pretty depiction of the fifties, stained with the burgundy of already drying blood. This is probably one of the signature motifs of the Coen Brothers, who wrote the original screenplay back in 1986, as well as the typification of family and community.
Now, the problem starts when you see the film and there are elements that
appear kind of no so related to the actual plot of the movie. The screenplay had a long journey of evolution as George Clooney (the actual director of the film) got on board along with associate producer Grant Heslov to do some rewriting.
As I mentioned before, the film seeds the problem of racial discrimation that develops paralell to the story but never really conjugates with it. It’s clear that there is an intention of the author (Clooney) to tell a cautionary tale about walls and fences and about the enemy within us. His attempt is valuable and neccesary but it’s not strong enough. He didn’t go all the way with it. Probably because he didn’t want to fall into any sort of cliché. But let’s remember what Alfred Hitchcock said to François Truffaut decades ago: it is better to start from the cliché than to end up with it.
Which is what happens in this film. You have a marvelous grotesque homage to crime films ornamented with humor and bright colors and in front of it a story that is planted as if it’s gonna have a repercusion in the actual development of the storyline, but it never does. Somehow Clooney is also discriminating against the African American family by not allowing them to be part of the story. Maybe the kid (Tony Espinosa), who befriends little Nicky, could have been of some dramatical importance. If not, then Clooney should have stuck to tell the American crime story and period. No fooling around with the idea of being politically correct. You either go with that idea all the way or you do a traditional murder mystery movie. In any case, the attempt to combine these two is not successful at all.
But, above all these problems, the film has rhythm and the arquitecture of cause and effect within the crime plot is impeccable. It’s a masterclass on how to write a film of this type and the references are there in the most ironic and subtle ways (Hitchcock is there in the kitchen knifes, the basements and the pendulating light bulbs, as well as the sadistic domestic sex and hair dyeing); it is also, in the light of today, a beautiful journey into the Coen Bothers’ iconography in the hands of director George Clooney. In that respect, leaving out the moralistic failures, I would like to thank him for trying to make American crime movies great again.
Iñaki Oñate / Writer (Quito, Ecuador – 1988) Iñaki resides in Buenos Aires, where he studied film directing at Universidad del Cine. His short films have been part of the official selection at the New York, La Habana and Cannes festivals. He’s currently developing his first feature film with his own independent production company, Undergofilms. He also works in music and art illustration.