If other films that I have seen this week fit more or less comfortably into some grand archetype – The Shape of Water is a fairytale, Downsizing is a sci-fi – then Suburbicon is a tragedy, and not just any. It’s a proper Shakespearean tragedy, that happens instead to have been written by George Clooney (who also directed) and Grant Heslov, from an early screenplay of Joel and Ethan Cohen.
For this film, which is more likely to be described as a period crime drama set in the mid 50’s America, it may be more important to explain what it’s not. Unlike many period crime drama’s, it’s not a whodunnit. It’s not a mystery. Although it has all the trappings of one: There’s a murder in the opening scene, and there’s the dogged detective who keeps getting closer to the truth. It’s also not a revenge film, though I believed for twenty minutes that it might be one. Instead, the mystery gets solved and there’s no one left on whom to take revenge, and you realize that the writing team has been subtly telling you what’s going on the whole time, all while fitting into some other formula.
Some cultural context for an international audience, this period of time – 1950’s America – is today thought of by many as some sort of lost paradise, a golden era of post-war success and moral goodness. This period is the “again” to which certain politicians loudly want to return, a time before America was corrupted by amoral European values. This is important for understanding this film because of the allegory that follows the two families, neighbors, and their tragedies. You, the audience, don’t understand immediately what is happening in the home of Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) not because it isn’t obvious, but because you don’t want to understand it. In the same way many in America deny that the other family, the Meyer’s, would have been treated the way that they were in the film, simply for the color of their skin. Not because the evidence isn’t there, but because they simply don’t want to believe it is true.
That’s the trick of this film. Similar in some ways to No Country for Old Men, this film follows certain storytelling patterns only to abandon or subvert them before they can be fulfilled, and also like that film, this one will definitely be better on a second viewing.
Special mention must be made of Julian Moore and Noah Jupe, whose demanding roles were very excellently portrayed.
This is an incredible film. Well filmed and directed. However, it is by no means perfect. The second family, in spite of all the time they spent on screen, was left completely undeveloped. Perhaps there was film left on the floor, but their only purpose in the finished film is as a symbol to complete the analogy. After the first hour, I could not remember if there was a father in the home or not. This, I think, is the greatest weakness of the film. As a symbol, they are less than they could be as real individuals.