Critical Viewing: Suburbicon (2017)

This week’s concentration is around spectatorship studies, the implied reader / viewer, and how audience expectations can be met or otherwise.

I had previously seen unfavourable reviews of George Clooney’s Suburbicon online, but it arrives on Amazon Prime this week, so I thought I would give it a go as I’m a huge fan of the Coen Brothers, and wondered how it could possibly have gone so wrong. It didn’t take long to find out…

Taking one half of its script from a script Joel and Ethan Coen wrote quite some time ago, and the other half presumably put in to place by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, Suburbicon is a film that just does not work.

Set in the 1950s, it begins with a pristine, entirely white neighbourhood; the women like Stepford wives, perfectly manicured lawns, everybody knows everybody else. And then a black family moves in. The supposedly neighbourly families immediately turn against them.

It is a good twenty minutes in to the film that a second plot is introduced, with Matt Damon’s character (Gardner), telling his son that there are men in their house. If they give them everything the men want, they will leave them alone. Things supposedly go wrong, and Gardner’s wife is killed.

This noirish, fully Coen-esque thriller tale of drama, blackmail and murder plays out against the backdrop of racial riots taking place outside the house down the street. But the two plots are completely distinct, with neither affecting the other in any way. From the first twenty minutes, as a viewer you come to expect one thing, then it veers wildly away from that theme of racial tensions to a thriller where you feel absolutely no sympathy for the main players, with the race riots being little more than background noise to a far less interesting story.

The lack of anything pulling the two together makes it an incredibly disjointed film that fails to work on many levels, not playing with audience expectations but completely destroying them and leaving the audience wanting something other than what they get.

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