The mileage that Hollywood continues to draw from anxieties that something nasty lurks behind white picket fences is remarkable. The master here is David Lynch, who has mined suburbia’s psychosexual depths like few others. But you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was time this particular pop culture trope was foreclosed upon. In fact, how about a film in which 2.4 children and their mature, healthy parents all get along?
Yes, that would be dull. Thus Suburbicon, a George Clooney directed crime caper set in your everyday late-fifties neighbourhood, is filled with murder, adultery, insurance scams, riots, and…well, spanking. Matt Damon plays Gardner Lodge, the man in the grey flannel suit whose disabled wife is murdered during a home invasion. When brought face to face with the men responsible in a line-up though, he doesn’t identify them. So continues a chain of macabre events that sees Lodge’s office shirt become ever bloodier.
If you’re thinking dime-store Coen brothers, then you’re not far off – Suburbicon is based on an unproduced script by Joel and Ethan from the late 80s, here repurposed by Clooney and his writing partner Grant Heslov. The former’s charm secured Julianne Moore for the film, who updates her role in The Hours to play Lodge’s wife, Rose, and her identical twin sister, Margaret. Meanwhile, and reaffirming his constitutional dapperness, Oscar Isaac is a pencil moustached insurance man investigating the creepiness afoot.
If the tone is generally frothy, the film’s historical gestures are not. Clooney’s changes to the script involved adding a retelling of the story of William and Daisy Myers, the first African Americans to move into the suburb of Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1957. Residents intimidated their new neighbours from the get go, whether by smashing windows, flying confederate flags, or stopping milk deliveries. This film is as much about communal ugliness as it is about the subdued rage of Damon’s white collard dolt.
Trump came to power during the filming of Suburbicon, and the crew toned down some of its goofier elements in response. Tackling race relations through black comedy is going to be a tricky thing to pull off at the best of times, but America’s current climate of atavistic brutality makes late 2017 a particularly charged moment for this film’s release. How well it can talk to today’s tensions is hard to say, if only because middle-American nastiness has never had less reason to hide than of late.
But maybe that’s the point of Suburbicon. When the country’s awfulness is so manifest, breaking the fences people put up to deny that fact is as important as ever.
So yes, Hollywood’s idea of the suburbs is still nightmarish – and perhaps it should remain that way.