There is a moment in Suburbicon when you realize that the closest comparison to other Coen brother films is Blood Simple, in that it is bleak with few characters to latch onto and identify with. It is at this moment, when you realize that this is not so much a dark comedy as it is merely a dark movie, that it becomes very hard to continue investing yourself in the antics.
The film focuses on a family man named Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) and his son, who are victim to a home invasion in the faux-idyllic, nebulous ’50s neighborhood aptly-named Suburbicon. You don’t know this focus for about 10 minutes, as the film begins by setting up the B-plot, which is a segregation narrative about a family of color moving into this otherwise entirely white neighborhood.
From the get-go, this social commentary taking place in a narrative of displaced 1950s suburbia seems reductive. The film, at first, makes racial tension feel quaint. Then, it amps it up to a soulless fever pitch. The entire time, it never holds any importance to the main plot of the film, and we are never given adequate insight into any nuances of the family or the town. As such, this entire subplot, which takes up much more time than you might expect, is an almost film-breaking misstep.
The main plot, written in seemingly two drafts—one by Joel and Ethan Coen and another by George Clooney and Grant Heslov—contains some clever Coen-isms. The script has glimmers of humor and dramatic irony that feel par for the course for the Coens. But even where the film has energy, it loses stakes in its tired conceit and a sheer inability to side with anybody.
Suburbicon is made up of two very different movies happening concurrently. One is a very Coen dark comedy that loses its comedy in a wishy-washy tonal blend. The other is a segregation narrative that is only unsettling in its utter superficiality and lack of exploration. Together, these halves make up for a jarring experience of tonal whiplash.
Seemingly, Suburbicon is a satire. It is seemingly a dark comedy.
It is a satire, until it isn’t. Until the script stops caring about its disparate messages. It is a dark comedy, until it isn’t. Until the nihilism sneaks up to the fore and makes everything on screen a boisterous farce.
Lack of subtlety can work. Nihilism can work. But in Suburbicon both are uncontrollable forces that strip away all of the meat. What is left are the bones of a film that could have been much better.
At least the two scenes featuring Oscar Isaac are fantastic. They should be extracted from this film and put into a new film about his character. Seriously, he almost single-handedly saves this film in less than 10 minutes of screentime.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)