Set in a quixotic 1950s suburb, the movie Suburbicon, directed by George Clooney, follows the tale of two neighbouring families: the Mayerses, a black family who are new to the neighbourhood, and the Lodges, a white family who are long-time residents of the town.
Being that the movie is set in the United States during the 1950s and the Mayerses are the first black family to move into a previously all-white neighbourhood, racial turmoil ensues. While the Mayerses are trying to settle into their new home, they are being profiled by their fellow townspeople due to their race. As this is all happening, the insidious behaviour going on next door with the Lodges is being ignored.
The literal and figurative juxtaposition of the two families sheds light on the issue of racial profiling in a way that would sound almost ridiculous if it weren’t based in truth.
Suburbicon is loosely based on Levittown, Pa., one of the first mass-produced suburbs in the United States. Though it made history as the model for post-war suburbs, it was also infamous for its racist policies of rejecting black homebuyers until this practice was discontinued for being unconstitutional.
The story of the Lodges’ clandestine crimes takes up most of the movie. Right off the bat, the mother of the family, Rose, is murdered by home invaders. She leaves behind a son, Nicky, and a husband, Gardner. Her sister, Margaret, then moves in to help take care of the house and Nicky, and this is when things begin to go south.
The Lodges quickly get tied up in blackmail, coercion, insurance fraud and even murder to cover up their trail of lies and surreptitious relationships. Though the two plot lines of the film are interwoven, the families are kept separate on all grounds except for the relationship between the children. Nicky Lodge and Andy Mayers form an unlikely friendship bonding over baseball and pet snakes, which gives the otherwise dark thriller a note of hope.
Apart from the complexity of the plot, the movie is very visually appealing. Clooney makes use of all the quintessential aesthetic elements of the 50s, from the muted pastel colour palette and the ugly but endearing home and office decorations to the deceptive perfection of surface appearances.
The soundtrack, done by the captivatingly talented Alexandre Desplat, is reminiscent of vintage horror-movie soundtracks, such as those in the 1958 film Horror of Dracula and the 1957 film The Curse of Frankenstein, with sprinklings of smooth elevator jazz and a timeless feel that blankets the entire score.
With all these standout elements considered, at first, it is hard to see why the movie did so poorly in theatres. It came nowhere near breaking even on its $25-million budget, making less than half of what was spent, and it was widely panned.
On a closer examination, one can see a few a factors that could have led to the failure of what should have been the ingredients to a great movie. First and most prominently, it was funded by The Weinstein Company, and the release of the movie unfortunately coincided with the explosion of sexual-harassment allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein. The actors and director have since spoken out against Harvey Weinstein.
Additionally, some critics believe that the plot of the Mayerses was overshadowed by that of the Lodges and that, in trying to bring light to the marginalization of black people, they were further marginalized due to the lack of an in-depth look into their lives. I would counter this by saying that there was no in-depth look into the life of the Mayerses because the Mayerses weren’t doing anything out of the ordinary.
They were living — or at least attempting to live — their everyday, normal lives: grocery shopping, doing yard work and getting mail. In the film, the townspeople were so enraged by black people daring to lead normal, everyday lives that they were blind to the insanity going on right next door.
Finally, it is possible that the world was not ready for a movie discussing underhanded racism because — especially with the rise of racist attitudes in the present-day United States — it would feel too much like a personal or close-to-home attack.
Regardless of why the film failed at the box office, Suburbicon is an excellent thriller with timely commentary on the history of racial tension in the United States. It may have been too challenging for mainstream success, but Suburbicon is a fantastic hidden gem that didn’t get the attention it deserved at release.
Graphic: Jaymie Stachyruk