Suburbicon: A Suburban Gothic Crime Drama

A disgruntled middle manager’s insurance scheme unravels in an idyllic 1950s suburb in Suburbicon (2017). Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) is a middle-aged man with a disabled wife, Rose (Julianne Moore), and a young son, Nicky (Noah Jupe). Their world is shattered when two thugs (Glenn Fleshler and Michael D. Cohen) seemingly break into their home and murder Rose with an overdose of chloroform.

In the wake of the tragedy, Rose’s sister, Margaret (also played by Julianne Moore), moves in with Gardner and Nicky, over the objections of her brother, Mitch (Gary Basaraba). Meanwhile, an African American family, Mr. and Mrs. Mayers (Leith M. Burke and Karimah Westbrook) and their son Andy (Tony Espinosa), move into the all-white community. This ignites a controversy that forms the backdrop for the film.

Suburbicon was written by the Coen brothers and directed by George Clooney (who revised the screenplay). Joel and Ethan Coen originally wrote the script in 1986. Their effort at finding whatever was laying around for their next film paid off by finishing 9th at the box office on its opening weekend. Suburbicon is Matt Damon’s lowest performing film and it has a current rating of 26 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

Suburbicon is modeled after Levittown, New York, a planned community built by William Levitt between 1947 and 1951 and the nation’s first modern suburb. Levitt, who was Jewish, believed whites would not want to live in Levittown alongside black neighbors, so the original rental agreement excluded non-Caucasians. Levittown remains 88.9 percent white.

In Suburbicon, white mobs subject the Mayers family to 24-hour harassment, culminating in torching their car and hanging a Confederate battle flag in their broken window. Nicky and Andy, however, form a bond, suggesting a more tolerant future.

The film’s dual plots left audiences and critics scratching their heads. The Mayers’ struggle doesn’t seem at all related to events in the Lodge household, except to occasionally serve as a neighborhood scapegoat for all the turmoil caused by Gardner and Rose’s machinations. Racial intolerance fades into the background as the Lodge drama plays out, yet Mr. and Mrs. Mayers’ appearance kicks off the film.

In any story, the opening scene usually introduces either the plot’s inciting incident or the main character. But in Suburbicon, neither of these is true, so audiences are left wondering when the Mayers’ story will become relevant (spoilers: never). The Mayers’ subplot is never resolved. Why even include it at all? To remind audiences what racism looks like? To appear more relevant in today’s climate of racially-charged politics?

If the film’s dual plots have any relationship, it’s to show a dark underbelly to an otherwise perfect community. This is quintessential Suburban Gothic. Suburban Gothic is a form of Dark Romantic storytelling set in a suburban environment. In early nineteenth century America, Romanticism gave rise to two opposing artistic and intellectual movements: Transcendentalism and Dark Romanticism. Transcendentalists believed in the inherent goodness of both people and nature, and that humanity is perfectible. In contrast, Dark Romantics believed humans were inherently fallible and prone to sin and self destruction.

The American suburb is essentially a Transcendentalist experiment in creating an ideal community through design. The architects of suburbia believed a carefully planned community could create a new, happier, and more productive life away from the corrupting influences of city life. Suburban Gothic film and literature argues that experiment will never succeed because humans are inherently flawed. The surface is merely a facade, while the strange and terrible is the reality.

But if Suburbicon’s message is that the suburbs suck, it’s not really breaking new ground. In light of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual improprieties, perhaps George Clooney should have exercised his directorial abilities exploring Hollywood’s seedy underbelly, rather than this well-worn topic. Suburbicon isn’t bad, necessarily, it’s just uninteresting.

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