A recent viewing of the trailer for Suburbicon led me to observe that the film looked ‘Coenesque’ – so it comes as no great surprise to learn that is actually based around an abandoned 1980s Coen Brothers screenplay, which has been reworked by director, George Clooney and by screenwriter, Grant Heslov. Fans of the brothers grim, may notice a passing similarity to the plot of one of their finest offerings, Fargo. Having said that, this film steers its own course and certainly has plenty to recommend it.
It’s the 1950s and the titular Los Angeles community styles itself as a kind of dream home for middle America, proudly boasting that in its idyllic realm, there is no crime and everybody is welcome – that is until the Mayers family takes up residence. The Mayers , you see, are African-Americans and it’s soon made abundantly clear to them that the all-compassing welcome doesn’t actually apply to them. (It’s interesting to note that this part of the story is based on a real life family, the Myers, who suffered similar problems when they moved into a residence in Charlotteville Virginia in 1957). What starts as a few silent protesters balefully watching their home steadily builds until things degenerate into an all-out riot.
But while everyone’s focus is on the Meyers’ house, it’s clear that something very unpleasant is happening right next door. Young Nicky Lodge (Noah Jupe) is woken one night by his father, Gardner (a beefed up Matt Damon) who tells him that a couple of intruders are in the house and he is to do whatever they tell him. As Nicky watches dumbfounded, Gardner, his crippled wife, Rose and her twin sister, Margaret, (both played by Julianne Moore) are all chloroformed to unconsciousness, shortly before he is given the same terrifying treatment. When he wakes up, he learns that Rose has died – and pretty soon, his Aunt Margaret moves into the house to lend her support. Nicky gradually begins to understand that things are not quite as they seem…
One of Suburbicon’s strengths is that much of the story is seen from Nicky’s point of view and the growing realisation that he is living in a poisonous environment is expertly handled. His burgeoning friendship with young Andy Meyers (Tony Espinosa) is also nicely reined in, just two young boys getting amiably along, the message all the stronger for not being hammered home with a mallet. This being a Coen storyline, there are of course a couple of memorable villains (Alex Hassell and Glenn Fleshler, doing a kind of demented Laurel and Hardy routine) and there’s a nice cameo by Oscar Isaac as a snoopy insurance investigator.
As the story accelerates towards its conclusion, we head into Pardoner’s Tale territory, as everyone homes in on the lure of a huge insurance payout – but Nicky (and the Meyers family) are the only characters here who really deserve our compassion, and the film kept me rooting for them right up to the end.