The film Suburbicon begins with a shot of an opening storybook, a convention used at the start of classic fairytale films like Snow White and Cinderella. The kings of these castles, however, are mid-20th century, middle-aged white guys, and their kingdom is a splendorous landscape of freshly mowed lawns, freshly built homes, and freshly waxed sedans sitting in driveways.
Directed by George Clooney and written by Clooney, the Coen brothers, and Grant Heslov, Suburbicon uses a fairytale setting as a cheeky backdrop for the chilling misadventures of the Lodge family. Headed by corporation man Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon, largely hidden behind glasses and inscrutably broody), the household also includes his disabled wife, Rose (Julianne Moore), and their young son, Nicky. Rose’s twin sister, Margaret (Moore again), is in for a visit—one that soon stretches into a longer-than-expected stay.
The pleasingly pastel visual uniformity of nearly identical homes and nearly identical twins doesn’t last long, however. First, an African American family, the Mayers, moves in behind the Lodges, integrating the neighborhood and setting off less-than-neighborly scuttlebutt. The main story, however, begins later that night when young Nicky Lodge is roused from his bed by his father. Burglars are in the house. Despite Gardner’s assurances to his son, neither Nicky nor we viewers really believe that things will be all right ever again.
On a road to hell paved with selfish intentions and littered with a high body count, Gardner Lodge, we discover, has set in motion a plan to change his life at the expense of the people around him. His ruthless self-interest sets off a series of events: first home invasion then murder, infidelity then insurance fraud, and extortion topped off with yet more murder. The question of who, if anyone, will be left to protect and love young Nicky Lodge is a source of increasing anxiety.
While a series of atrocities unfolds within their home, the Lodge family draws no neighborly attention. For the Mayers, however, their quiet family life (truly—they have almost no dialogue) is increasingly scrutinized and surveilled on the basis of their racial difference alone. White residents keep a paranoid vigil outside the Mayers’ home on the family’s first night in Suburbicon. By the film’s end, fences ostensibly built to keep these black neighbors out of view become the last line of defense for the African American family. When a riot breaks out, the fence becomes a dam holding back violent white rage—an outpouring of the interior lives of fear-driven residents who’ve lost their mooring to reality.
As a film critic who appreciates the Coen brothers, Suburbicon was not the movie I anticipated. Given the Coens’ reputations for comedy, not just social commentary, the film certainly ranks among the least playful to bear their writing credit. Moments of Coen-ness peek through here and there but don’t last. (One of the longest gags in the film is a chase scene that features Damon’s Gardner riding a child’s bicycle as if his life depended on it—which it does.)
Despite being a tale of two families besieged by tragedy, the film fails to capitalize on all that dramatic potential and instead feels emotionally flat. Something is missing from Gardner, as well as the rest of Suburbicon’s characters: Not only are few of them likable as human beings, none of them are all that enjoyable to watch. The quirky characters of Coen films are often developed with a certain affection or at least amusement—from Norm Gunderson of Fargo to the nihilists of TheBig Lebowski. In Suburbicon, by contrast, Nicky is the only character for whom we can muster any affection. The performances are serviceable but not engaging, the dialogue smart but not memorable, the characters idiosyncratic but not much fun.
After opening weekend, the film’s audience approval score on Rotten Tomatoes is hovering near an impressively low 25 percent. USA Today’s entertainment section has provided coverage of how bad the film’s reception has been. The parallel between the Lodge and Mayers families, in particular, has drawn heavy criticism.
Although the Mayers family subplot is often generally interpreted by critics as a forced and feeble reflection on the racist failures of the 1950s, I found that “watching-while-Christian” allowed me to see it as something more—namely, a reflection on the human heart and how human brokenness can be amplified and normalized in community.
Each time the film cuts back to the white crowds outside the Mayers’ home, the group has grown larger and angrier. They move from singing protest songs to wielding fiery torches. The violence that finally devours the Mayer’s property is also, however, devouring its perpetrators. The entire subplot plays like time-lapse photos of the process of dehumanizing others. The actions of the white protestors stem from fear but also from a steadfast denial of the human dignity of their neighbors and from a refusal to see the other as image-bearer.
Although, per the critics’ consensus, the Mayers subplot doesn’t work particularly well as a meditation on mid-century racial politics, the thin portrait of racial animosity serves as a provocative echo of contemporary news images. The radically under-developed characters (both white and black) who populate this subplot are placeholders for real lives rather than representations of them—which makes them seem less bound to the past than they might otherwise. The more I saw of the shouting and shoving, the threats and terror, the more I squirmed in my seat, not only for the Mayers of the imaginary past but also for those in our politically charged present. (Arguably, Americans in the past few years have been party to or witnesses of more racially driven protests and violence than any since the Jim Crow era of the Clooney/Coen film.)
In the film, the peaceable residents of All-American Suburbicon are transformed by racism, which plays out as an obsessive desire to protect their space from outsiders. Their hyper-vigilance against the Mayers distracts them entirely from examining their own actions and attitudes, from noticing who they are becoming, and from seeing the irony of preserving their ideal neighborhood by abandoning other American ideals.
As Christ warns in Matthew 7:3, hubris of this kind leads to sin and hypocrisy: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Blinded by racism, the white families in Suburbicon cannot see the plank of injustice in their own eyes. And when it comes to the Mayers, even a speck worthy of reproach never materializes. By dehumanizing their African Americans neighbors, the white residents are themselves dehumanized—disconnected from their own hearts and hardened against the self-examination that leads to repentance to God and reconciliation with Man.
As such, the racial-integration subplot in Suburbicon points toward contemporary political challenges and also beyond them to the perennial human sin of demonizing the different—whoever we define them to be. Dehumanization is a double-edged sword. Those who succumb to it are convinced that the disdained other is the one with whom they must do battle, when in fact the more proximate and urgent evil is the one festering in their own fear-drenched hearts.