Movie Review: “Suburbicon” Jumbles Crime Comedy, Race Drama

Hollywood has long cast a jaundiced eye to the uniform sprawl of suburban America—its picket fences, its wall-manicured lawns, its aroma of housewives’ pies wafting from windowsills. Sitcoms established the (entirely white) suburban fantasy, “The Twilight Zone” punctured it, and films from “Blue Velvet” to “American Beauty” to “Happiness” to “Pleasantville” staked its heart, letting the darker ids of suburbia run free.

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To this esteemed list we can add “Suburbicon” (opening Friday), a strange but satisfying film directed by George Clooney, from a script co-written by the Coen Brothers. It opens with a faux-promotional video for the fictitious planned community of Suburbicon, a newly constructed Caucasian paradise, built in 1947, that boasts its own church, park, supermarket—even its own choir!

Our first look at Suburbicon life is a chop off the “Leave it to Beaver” block: Rambunctious kids on jingling bikes, Officer Friendly patrolling the lily-white streets, a homemaker planning to bake a custard for her new neighbors—that is, until the town realizes the neighbors are black. To the residents of this formerly all-white neighborhood in Jim Crow America, the African-American family is nothing less than a virus on their body politic, a cancer that must be removed. But more on that later.

The narrative soon shifts to the movie’s “A” plot, concerning a mild-mannered businessman named Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) whose home is invaded by a pair of gangsters chiseled from a pulp novel. They silence the family with chloroform before searching the house for valuables, killing Gardner’s wheelchair-bound wife, Rose (Julianne Moore), in the process.

So begins the first domino in another schadenfreude-laced Coen Brothers parable of greed and lust, a simple-plan-gone-awry scheme in the manner of “Fargo” and “Blood Simple,” but without the prior’s comic sparkle or the latter’s harrowing menace. In fact, the screenplay is routine by the Coens’ standards; its mysteries could unravel on a cocktail napkin. It’s Clooney’s directorial vision that lifts the movie up.

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“Suburbicon” positively pops off the screen with bold primary colors, chiaroscuro lighting—in two instances, a swinging light from a chain-pull bulb creates a shadow dance, like in an old noir film—and a stylized approach to production design. Alexandre Desplat’s alternately loping, slicing, jazzy soundtrack underlines the Old Hollywood/vintage sitcom ambience.

These evocative textures make the story’s descent into anarchy all the more striking. As the edenic Suburbicon descends into a bloodbath, Gardner Lodge’s domestic drama blurs with the sociopolitical concerns—namely the ritual, systemic and growing abuse directed at the black neighbors—which had been simmering on the periphery all along. After all, the town had been peaceful until they arrived.

You wouldn’t find this political subtext in a Coen-directed satire; it has all the fingerprints of Clooney, one of Hollywood’s most dyed-in-the-wool liberals. But as this movie’s “A Raisin in the Sun” evolves into “Night of the Living Dead” in the background, the presence of something larger than a predictable crime yarn is more than welcome.

As the white neighbors amass torches and build walls (OK, fences) around the black family, and longtime Suburbiconers spread fake news about their quiet new neighbors to a sensationalistic news media, we think of Ferguson, we think of Charlottesville, we think of Trump. It’s inevitable, and Clooney knows it. It doesn’t make these conclusions less impactful. “Suburbicon” is a mordant product of its time.