One of both the best and worst things about Suburbicon is that it is absolutely not the film you expect it to be. Trailers for George Clooney’s directorial take on a previously unproduced Coen Brothers script have suggested a classic Coen caper of an everyman, in this case Matt Damon’s Gardner Lodge, accidentally entering a violent world that he is not equipped for. What we actually get is something far bleaker. Unfortunately, the divide between the original Coen ideas and what’s been put in by Clooney and writer Grant Heslov ends up being plain as day, with the new additions rarely faring well in comparison.
Lodge lives in the eponymous town of Suburbicon, a ‘quiet, peaceful place’. Impeccably designed, it looks exactly like the dream towns of ‘50s brochures, but its haughty sense of flawless superiority is brought to a crashing close by a brutal home invasion and the town’s despicable reaction to the moving in of its first black residents. Mob-backed robbers, with what looks like a more complicatedly sinister motivation than just money, break into Gardner’s home, killing his wife Ruth and injuring her twin Maggie (both sisters played by Julianne Moore) as well as young son Nicky (Noah Jupe).
A stunned silence falls over the town, who begin to suspect that the African-American Mayers family have somehow brought this trouble with them to Suburbicon. As the mystery behind the break in is unfolded, a rising racist hysteria simultaneously starts putting more and more violent pressure on the Mayers to leave. Originally a Coens script from the ‘80s, Clooney and writing partner Grant Heslov have updated it with more timely themes, but the blend is far from seamless. As the blackly comic crime half of the film veers intriguingly into leftfield territories, the race relations side remains unfortunately stolid.
Laughs and thrills are dotted throughout Suburbicon as people’s schemes start crumbling in on them, forcing drastic action from the unlikeliest of sources. The emotional repression of the ‘50s is parodied well, and any film with a Chekov’s Sandwich as a murder weapon has to have a strong sense of fun. But there’s a nasty streak a mile wide as well, which adds a meanness of tone that dampens the fun and makes the hounding of the Mayers feel exploitative (though the casting of the racist crowd extras is spot on, all of them looking like ugly, fat failures).
When the two stories collide at the climax, Suburbicon descends into a mania that starts out rampantly entertaining, but soon threatens to collapse the film entirely. The suspension of disbelief is pushed to breaking point, and Clooney and Heslov lose sight of the characters, who all of a sudden become caricatures instead of the complex and uneasy figures of the first two thirds. Damon and Moore turn in solid performances – it’s the kind of frighteningly duplicitous role that Moore can really nail, and it’s rare to see Damon play someone as conniving as this. But it’s Oscar Isaac, appearing midway through the second act, who absolutely steals the film.
As a claims fraud investigator Roger, Isaac is such irresistibly zippy fun that he actually has you rooting for an insurance company, and I’d happily watch a prequel trilogy about his past escapades. Roger is the one element of Suburbicon’s script (and he’s clearly a Coen, not Clooney and Heslov, creation) that hasn’t been transferred into one of the brothers’ later films but you really wish had. With the best elements of Suburbicon refined and inserted into far better films, actually directed by the Coens, it becomes sadly obvious, despite plenty of bloody fun, why this was originally left on the shelf.