To say that George Clooney’s latest film has received something of a critical backlash isn’t really that much of a criticism. Between Good Night and Good Luck and The Ides of March, Clooney’s films have tended to play as a solipsistic sounding board for liberal Hollywood to congratulate itself. As a result, they’ve almost inevitably garnered acclaim from the Hollywood press, since they are, in some sense, all about the Hollywood press. While Clooney may have produced films that have been met with more lukewarm responses, such as The Monuments Men, or even bemused responses, such as Leatherheads, not a single one of his films has engendered the same vitriolic disavowal as Suburbicon, which has generated a critical disapprobation previously inconceivable within his consensus-courting filmography. So hostile has the critical reaction been that it’s fair to assume, going in, that Suburbicon somehow undoes or complicates the seamless Hollywood liberalism that has sustained Clooney’s body of work up until this point. This, indeed, is how most detractors have framed the film – as a conservative retreat from a director once renowned for his leftist politics – and yet it’s also possible for the film to be seen from the opposite perspective; namely, as Clooney’s first real foray into an aesthetic radicalism that is sceptical enough to undo and critique the Hollywood insularity that made his earlier films so popular.
To some extent, that’s a product of the screenplay, one of the earliest in the Coen Brothers’ catalogue, and clearly a prototype for several of their most iconic subsequent efforts (and Fargo in particular). On the surface, it resembles the 1950s parodies and pastiches, such as Pleasantville and The Stepford Wives, that became popular around the turn of the millennium, as we are gently landed within the idyllic community of Suburbicon, which we experience through the eyes of one of its exemplary families. At the head of this family is Gardner Lodge, played by Matt Damon, who oversees his wife Rose, played by Julianne Moore and his son Nicky, played by Noah Jupe, while also maintaining a discrete dalliance with his wife’s twin sister Margaret, also played by Julianne Moore. Unlike those millennial parodies, however, any picaresque playfulness is immediately offset by the way in which Clooney shoots Damon, whose role in this film will always be equated in my mind with his post-Harvey Weinstein self, and his altered public persona in the light of his response to (and possible knowledge of) the allegations that aired in mid-2017. Framed in bloated, pasty, pathetic close-ups, he’s divested here of any residual charm or charisma, especially as a father or family man, in what has to be one of the ugliest roles of his entire acting career.
Before the narrative even takes a darker turn, the bright, sunny palette of Suburbicon is offset by Gardner – and Damon’s presence – which is oddly sequestered from the rest of the narrative, refusing to ever engage with or perpetuate its perky charisma. It feels almost inevitable, then, when it turns out that Gardner has already had something of an adverse effect on his family, having rendered his wife Rose a paraplegic after a driving accident, and showing almost no interest in having a relationship with his son Nicky. If that weren’t bad enough, twenty minutes into the film the entire Gardner family is taken hostage by a pair of hoodlums, who seat them all around the kitchen table and drug them one by one with chloroform, forcing Nicky to look on in terror as the three adult figures in his life progressively pass out. In its prescience for the horror of debilitated sight – having nothing else to do but watch – this is the first of many unsettling set pieces that occur across the film, which is perhaps why the ambience of this scene never quite dissipates, but instead generates the entire arc and narrative of the film after the home invaders administer just a little too much chloroform to Rose, sending her into a coma that quickly leads to her death.
Things move relatively quickly from that point onwards, as Rose is buried, Margaret moves in, and rapidly becomes a mother to Nicky and a wife to Gardner. In some ways, Margaret is the main character of the film, as Gardner is more and more dissociated from her dual roles as wife and mother – even as he appears to have generated and demanded them – and Nicky is increasingly forced back into more and more introspective and isolated situations and states of mind. What’s unusual, however, is that the more that Margaret identifies with her newfound role as wife and mother, and the more this pushes her towards the centre of the film, the more expendable she feels as a character as well, a paradox that sees her becoming more brutal and clinical in her efforts to inhabit the role that turns her into more of a placeholder with each fresh attempt to decisively occupy it. Positioned between Gardner and Nicky, and between father and son, she’s so critical to the social structure outlined in the film that she gradually comes to feel more and more like a type, or a syntactic device, necessary for the functioning of the aesthetic universe that Clooney elaborates, but utterly devoid of any kind of intrinsic identity or characteristics of her own.
It’s at this point that Suburbicon begins to gravitate away from regular period drama and towards something like science fiction, as the coordinates of Clooney’s world start to take on more of an artificial and prosthetic quality, while also precluding the knowing distance or detachment that characterised an older kind of 50s pastiche. Whereas films like Pleasantville and The Stepford Wives playfully satirised our distance from the past, and our nostalgia for the past, Suburbicon takes place in a world in which the distinction between present and past is much more difficult to parse. In large part, that’s because of how the film situates itself with respect to the proliferation of period drama that has characterised the last ten years of film and television, along with the growing association of period authenticity with “quality” film and television – an association that owes no small part to Clooney’s own Good Night and Good Luck, as well as his filmography as a whole, which has been almost exclusively comprised of exactly these tasteful, consensus-driven period pieces. In Suburbicon, however, Clooney effectively disavows that filmography in his vision of a world in which white suburbia, and the white nuclear family, has become unthinkable outside of a “period effect,” and in which the white present can only be conceived in terms taken from period drama, however seamlessly they might be subsumed into that present.
If Julianne Moore is the central actor here, then, it’s also because of the way her looks and bearing seem to reach back to an earlier cinematic moment, turning her into something of a stylised period effect in herself, with her roles in Far From Heaven and The Hours forming a counterpart to the more parodic period dramas that characterised millennial Hollywood. In Suburbicon, however, Clooney encourages Moore to exhaust that side of her persona, or to render it as self-parody, in what has to be one of the bravest performances of Moore’s late career – a kind of performative disposability that speaks to the subsumption of her period trappings into just another feature of the Hollywood present tense. No wonder, then, that critics appear to have felt betrayed by the film, and by Clooney and Moore’s participation in it, since this is tantamount to a revision of both their filmographies in the light of contemporary Hollywood, which of course also means that Suburbicon is a critique of contemporary Hollywood, and the extent to which even its most residual fantasies can now only be expressed in period terms, as continuations of a past that has eclipsed the present.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the depiction of Damon’s character – a suburban patriarch who, it turns out, is prepared to destroy his entire family in the name of being a father. That was always one of the premises of suburban melodrama (Bigger Than Life comes to mind), but here there’s not even any real impetus or visceral pleasure to Gardner’s paternal authority, so much as a sense that we are simply moving through this cyclical destruction of mothers, sons and daughters because there is nothing else to really do, with Gardner (and Damon) appearing to inhabit the role of self-immolating father more as a matter of rote learning than anything else. In other words, this monstrous paternalism doesn’t even generate charisma as it might have in an earlier era, or in an earlier iteration of the Coen Brothers’ screenplay, which is one of the very best of their careers, but perhaps only from this vantage point and only directed by Clooney. For all the criticisms to the effect that Clooney has made an inferior Coen Brothers film, part of what makes Suburbicon so startling is the way in which Clooney resists picaresque, charisma and all the ways in which this film might have segued into full-blown comedy. To be sure, it’s there in the opening scenes, but as Suburbicon proceeds the Coens’ signature seems to shift into Clooney’s (new) signature before our eyes, until the effect is a bit like watching a Coen Brothers film without the glibness, or in which glibness is no longer really possible some thirty years into the future.
In that sense, Suburbicon often plays as a critique – almost a deconstruction – of the matrix of blackness, whiteness and period drama that also sustained the Coen Brothers around the millennium, with films like The Ladykillers and O Brother, Where Art Thou? providing a third iteration of this drive towards period nostalgia that characterised this particular moment in American cinema, now framed by Suburbicon as the foundation and substrate of our current period milieu. In the periodised present, however, the glibness that sustained those films is no longer really possible, which is perhaps why Suburbicon often feels like a sequel, rather than a rough draft, of Fargo, the film in the Coens’ body of work whose narrative it most resembles. Certainly, this is a truer sequel to Fargo than the FX series, as we gradually realise that Gardner has been responsible for Rose’s death, possibly planned Rose’s accident, and may even be planning Margaret’s death as well, not unlike the way in which William H. Macy’s Jerry Lundegaard orchestrates a criminal conspiracy around his wife Jean in order to collect the ransom money from his father-in-law. What’s different in Suburbicon, however, is that Gardner doesn’t have even the slightest affection for either of his wives, and could conceivably rotate through Julianne Moore clones endlessly in his efforts to exploit his life insurance policy. Nor do we have the ironic distance of Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson, with Oscar Isaac making a brief cameo as a frauds investigator whose detached commentary is quickly cut short by Gardner and Margaret’s disposal of his body.
The result is a solipsistic paternalism, on Gardner and Damon’s part, that is entirely divested of charisma and can only relate to itself – a move that calls out white nostalgia more than a conventionally humanist drama could ever have done. That anti-humanist streak climaxes with Clooney’s treatment of the Mayers, a black couple played by Karimah Westbrook and Leith M. Burke, who move in next door to Gardner, and are immediately met with an escalating cascade of protest and harassment from Suburbicon at large. These figures have garnered the most criticism from detractors of the film, largely because they are never deepened into “characters,” with their suffering used largely to contour the activity happening next door, as Nicky pops over from time to time to play with the Mayers’ son Andy, played by Tony Espinosa. Yet by never presenting these figures as black “characters” to be subsumed into and naturalised by the narrative, Clooney exposes the extent to which their aesthetic exploitation is what renders this period effect possible in the first place, refusing to flatter his audience with the token glimpses of black introspection, interiority and individuation typically required to make these kinds of historical vision amenable to Hollywood liberalism. Far from whitewashing history, Clooney asks us to imagine every period piece, or period effect, with a racially vilified couple in the next room, or over the next fence, in a unique revision of Dreyer’s theory of cinematic horror: “Imagine that we are sitting in an ordinary room. Suddenly we are told that there is a corpse behind the door. In an instant the room we are sitting in is completely altered…This is because we have changed and the objects are as we conceive them. That is the effect I finally want to get in my film.”
To point out that the black characters aren’t integrated into the narrative, as so many critics have done, is therefore to wish that the film didn’t present segregation itself as the motor engine and precondition of the period fantasies it punctures – to wish, in short, that Suburbicon permitted us to stylise the white past so as to deny that racism ever really happened, or continues to happen. Far from ignoring the racial inequality of Hollywood, then, Suburbicon must be about the most scathing critique a white director could make of Hollywood racism. And in that sense, it’s not hard to see why Clooney has received such criticism, even if it’s not exactly or directly his fault, since if the film criticises the latent racism of white period drama, it also characterises whiteness as incapable of of conceiving of itself beyond period drama, or outside of coordinates that would be more at home in a period drama than in any realistic version of the present. In the most eloquent way, Suburbicon outlines a world in which whiteness continues to lay claim to a present that it is incapable of understanding in terms of the present, perpetually displaced by its claims to contemporaneity by the very act of articulating those claims in the first place. Hence the muted solipsism Damon’s performance, which simply “inhabits” the film as if it can’t conceive of anywhere else to be except centre stage, even if that very inability immediately displaces him from the substance and focus of the film as well. The more Gardner arrogates that centrality, the more he relegates himself to an elsewhere and elsewhen that is the true subject of Suburbicon, which never aligns itself with either the present or the past so much as a present that, for whiteness, has always already passed into the realms of period drama.
What Suburbicon finally offers us, then, is a vision of white finitude in the face of the present moment, as Clooney cursorily and radically disposes of period drama as a fantasy built upon black suffering – upon the suffering of everyone other than the white nuclear suburban father – while also refusing to offer any kind of consolatory space “outside” that fantasy, be it dramatic, comic or ironic. From the scene in which Gardner murders the insurance salesman while the rest of Suburbicon is harassing his black neighbours, to the manifold ways in which white protest masks white atrocity across the film as a whole, there is not one single redeeming feature of this suburban universe, which culminates with Gardner’s final fatherly talk with Nicky, in which he assures his son that he is prepared to kill him to retain his role as father, asking him “What do you think you know…of men?” and demonstrating just how plausibly he might explain his actions to the police: “Officer, I did everything he could to save my boy.” It’s the kind of moment that a more liberal film might shy away from taking to its logical conclusion, so it’s breathtaking when Clooney – and the Coens – transition to one final scene, in which Nicky heads next door to play baseball with Andy after having killed Gardner himself, even as the camera pans up to demonstrate the limitless suburban tracts beyond. In its longing to escape the gaze of white paternalism, and its prescience of the finitude of white directors to actually achieve this, it is the antithesis of every other film in Clooney’s career, and even a revisionary riposte to his career – a riposte that many of his liberal followers have found affronting, but which is perhaps the best case he has ever made for directorial auteurism, if only because of how brutally he annihilates any claims to auteurism, and any straightforward appreciation of his auteurism, in doing so.