TIFF 2017: Suburbicon

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The peaceful community of Suburbicon, an idealistic 1950’s destination for those who like their Americana to be filled with apple pies and white picket fences, is turned upside down when the Meyers, an African-American family, moves in. While the folks in the community would be the first to state that there is not a racist bone in their body, they do have some concerns with the possible increase in crime and depreciation of property value that the addition of the Meyers may cause. While the community focuses their attention on the new family in town, the are oblivious to the crime that has occurred at the house next door.

The same night the Meyers move in, Gardner (Matt Damon) and his family are accosted by two thugs in their own home. The traumatic encounter results in the tragic death of his wife (Julianne Moore). As Gardner and the rest of the family, including his son Nicky (Noah Jupe) and sister-in-law Margaret (also wonderfully played by Moore), attempt to move on with their lives, the hostility towards the Meyers grows with each passing day. The only ones who seem remotely suspicious of the motives that lead to the incident in Gardner’s home are Officer Hightower (Jack Conley), the cop investigating the case, a shrewd insurance claims investigator named Roger (Oscar Isaac), and young Nicky himself.

Adapting a long gestating script by Joel and Ethan Coen, which was written in the 80’s, it is easy to see several shades of Fargo in the latest directorial work from George Clooney. Similar to other Coen Brothers scripts, much of Suburbicon’s dark comedy comes from watching seemingly average individuals dig themselves into deeper holes. Featuring a handful of quirky characters and sharp dialogue, Oscar Isaac is fantastic at capturing the fast-paced rhythm of the banter, there is much to enjoy in the film.

Where Suburbicon stumbles is in its handling of the racial divide in America. Instead of making the Meyers fully realized characters, Clooney presents them as merely vessels to take the brunt of the community’s abuse. While he clearly wants to show the Meyers as the embodiment of the best in humanity, he never allows the audience to see them as anything more than “the black family”. Considering that Clooney is an individual who frequently fights against injustice, and clearly aims to do so here, it is a little surprising that the message is portrayed in such a safe way.

A valid argument has been made that one needs to keep in mind the era in which the script was written when looking at the approach to race. Suburbicon would have been viewed as cutting edge and controversial in the 80’s, however, it feels underwhelming, and slightly insulting racially speaking, by today’s standards.