Unnerving Relations

George Clooney’s latest film as director started life as a script by the Coen Brothers, a story the sibling filmmakers wrote over thirty years ago after their 1984 debut Blood Simple. A 1980s-set small-town tale of murder and mayhem, the Coens’ tale has been transposed by Clooney and his regular co-writer Grant Heslov to the 1950s. The setting is Suburbicon, an affluent new suburb that has sprung up, with white picket fences as far as the eye can see.

Clooney and Heslov were partly inspired by real events that took place in Levittown, Pennsylvania, in 1957, when the African-American Myers family moved into the neighbourhood, facing unrest and violence from the white population. The film opens with just such an arrival, sending shockwaves through the community. About the only person who doesn’t seem to care is Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon).

A white collar worker, Gardner is too busy scheming to bump off his wife, the wheelchair-bound Rose (Julianne Moore), mother to his only child Nicky (Noah Jupe). This wicked plot has been cooked up with Rose’s twin sister Margaret (also Moore), whom Gardner is planning to hook up with as soon as the dust settles. Only poor Nicky gets a sense that his father and aunt are in the midst of a deadly plan.

Certainly it’s not hard to see the Coens’ fingerprints on this: Gardner feels like a precursor to Jerry Lundegaard from Fargo, who similarly plotted to have his wife kidnapped for the ransom. As in so many Coen efforts, a protagonist whose own scam spirals out of control is central here. How well that works grafted onto the Clooney-Heslov racism subplot is debatable, with the townsfolk all distracted and directing their hateful attention to the new black folks next door as Gardner goes about his murderous business unimpeded.

Nevertheless, Suburbicon feels timely with America’s recent racial outburst. There’s good support from Oscar Isaac as a crooked insurance claims investigator, who suspects Gardner and Margaret are up to no good. Damon also thrives in the darkest role of his career, a man who will stop at nothing to keep his scheme on track. Compared to Clooney’s comic misfire, the football-set Leatherheads, Suburbicon has a better engine to it, and – if you’re that way inclined – a twisted coal-black sense of humour.

Suburbicon opens in cinemas on 24 November. For more information, visit: www.suburbiconmovie.com

James Mottram

1. Still from Suburbicon.