To use an adage from an upcoming film, Suburbicon is not a place it’s a people. Very white people to be exact, as is hilariously outline in the welcome to town video at the top of the film. Oh yes, they come from New York to Mississippi to live in the picturesque town, but things aren’t quite what they seem. The Gardner’s become victim to a tragic home invasion and try to rebuild, but are in the clutches of the mob. Coincidentally, at the same time, a new family has moved in near them, the first black family in the town’s history. Tensions begin to rise in everyone’s lives before reaching a tipping point.
Normally, in the case of a movie like this, many look to fault the marketing of the film as to why it failed. That’s certainly the case for some movies, and Suburbicon did itself no real favors in hiding its racial storyline. However, I don’t think that a movie like Suburbicon would have succeed with better trailers or posters, than it would have with a more well rounded script and focus. The script, as written by the Coen Bros and Grant Heslov & George Clooney is admirably performed by a fun ensemble of actors. What it is not is written with any kind of real nuance or understanding of the topics it is presenting.
The African American neighbors’ storyline plays a huge role in the impact the narrative wants to have and the satire it wants to make, they aren’t even the main plot. By the time I left the theater, angry as hell at what I had just witnessed. Was the entire point of the movie to show us how trash and raggedy white people are and have historically been? 1) Most people of color already knew that and 2) Suburbicon does itself a tremendous disservice in how it decides to show this to the white audience I envision is the one they put this in for.
The satire is clear here, the entire community rails against the negroes whilst not realizing their neighbor is a killer and has brought the mob into their town. Great. However, Suburbicon insults our intelligence by not rising above that or do anything interesting with that beyond that surface level jab. If the best way you can get folks to sympathize with black people is to juxtapose their quiet, superior suffering with that of murderous con-artists than you don’t have much of a leg to stand on. In the year 2017, we, as audience members, deserve more than the basic callbacks to films of the 50s (like Imitation of Life) where everything ends alright, despite the harrowing things characters go through.
Perhaps most damaging to the ultimate point is that the Black family is literally only there to help make the point that racism is bad. They aren’t characters in their own right, and only the son is given any kind of defining qualities other than the noble Negro he’s presented to be. You get no sense of who these people are, what they do, how they work, they are only in this film to make a larger societal point and this disregard for humanity actually upends the movie’s desired effect. While we are watching the twisty, turning familial dynamics played out by Julianne Moore, Matt Damon, and wunderkind Noah Jupe, all we get with the black characters is moments of them facing down racist white people with a dash of their sons playing together. It would have been fun to see them get involved in the hijinks of the Gardner’s but instead they’re stuck being an instructional lesson about how racism is bad. I couldn’t do anything but groan loudly as the final racist white comment was made in the film.
And it’s too bad because there are compelling elements of this film, particularly Margaret played by Julianne Moore and the brilliant acting of young Noah Jupe. Their subtle power grabbing was fun to watch and their interactions with the main plot gave the movie some of it’s most interesting moments. But every time you think you’ll get to spend more time with these delightfully messy people, you get drug back into an after school special. It just not worth the effort to see a film that cares so little about it’s message or plot.