[This is a repost of my review from the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. Suburbicon opens tomorrow.]
George Clooney’s Suburbicon is not the movie it’s currently being sold as. I imagine it’s going to get a deeply negative CinemaScore (a metric of how expectations measured up with the actual film) because while it’s being billed as a darkly comic crime story, that’s really only half the film, and not the part where Clooney’s interest lies. Instead, Suburbicon is about race relations in America, and functions like a sharp poke in the eye towards white America. But Clooney, in his drive to point out how the white middle class dehumanizes black families, ends up dehumanizing a black family.
[In order to explain why Suburbicon doesn’t really work, I’m going to have to go into some light spoilers that haven’t been revealed in the trailer. If you want to stay spoiler-free, stop reading now.]
The movie opens singing the praises of Suburbicon, a 1950s suburb that celebrates its diversity like white people from New York, white people from Ohio, and white people from Mississippi. When a black family, the Myers, move in, the neighborhood goes into an uproar, and tries to figure out a way to force them out. The action the moves over to a completely different situation—Gardener Lodge (Matt Damon), his wife (Julianne Moore), her twin sister Margaret (also Moore), and the Lodges’ son Nicky (Noah Jupe) are the victims of a home invasion that leaves Mrs. Lodge dead. What at first seems like a tragedy instead turns out to be a twisted case of fraud where Gardener has to fend off the home invaders as well as a colorful, suspicious insurance claim adjustor (Oscar Isaac).
It’s two stories: one about a case of fraud that continues to get darker and more twisted, and a story about a black family being terrorized by white neighbors who want to keep their suburb white. Once it becomes clear that the Lodges are perpetrators and not victims (something that becomes clear within the first act), Clooney’s point becomes obvious and repetitive—the white people of Suburbicon are directing all of their rage at the innocent black family because they’re black while ignoring the nefarious Gardener and Margaret because they’re white. It’s essentially along the lines of a liberal remark, “You ever notice how white people get really angry at a Colin Kaepernick protest but never at the white bankers who defrauded the country?”
I agree with that point, but it’s kind of obvious, and clumsily made. Where the movie really falls apart is by treating the Myers not as people but as a symbol. Clooney’s message may be well intentioned, but it feels hollow when the Myers don’t even get first names. On the one hand, perhaps Clooney didn’t feel comfortable trying to speak for black families and he feels that he’s in far safer territory if he’s chastising racist white people and how racism only serves as a distraction from our nation’s decline. But by depriving the Myers of individual voices and having them stand in for all black families, Clooney turns them into a cardboard cutout.
Suburbicon is a film that’s more than happy to skim along the surface, telling two stories on a superficial level, but never giving either one enough time to really leave much of an impact. We never really get to know the Lodges before the home invasion, and that’s because, like the Myers, they’re meant to stand in for a larger statement on race in America. There’s more time to devoted to their story, but we don’t really know much about Gardener and Margaret other than they’re scumbags who got in bed with other scumbags. At least Oscar Isaac’s simple character has the courtesy to be colorful and entertaining.
Clooney has basically made a feature-length tweet. While most of us have to confine our opinions on America to social media, a blog post, the comments section, or (if you’re feeling old fashioned) a letter to the editor, George Clooney is a wealthy, famous, powerful movie star, so his thoughts get to be a major motion picture starring Matt Damon and Julianne Moore. While I agree with Clooney—that white America is throwing a shit fit over moving from a majority to a minority, and they’re taking out their anger on minorities while ignoring their own culpability—it didn’t require a feature film to make this observation and share it with the world, especially when the statement talks over the movie’s black characters.