Although Suburbicon features a setting ripe for sad contemplations on the depravity of humankind, it instead opts for a take on the troubled family that it is itself troubling.
There’s no point in mincing words: Suburbicon is, despite its sheen of quirky and strange, a bleak and morally bereft film. Set in an ambiguously located suburb of 1950’s white America, the film is meant to be a deconstruction of “the good old days” and the American dream. In so doing, it gets its point across, even if it’s a bit unfocused in the journey. But that destination would have us throw the baby out with the bathwater.
And yet this is an odd deconstruction, because we barely make it through the opening credits before the ugliness of the suburb is shown in full force. A black family moves into this distinctly white neighborhood, which causes a fierce opposition that grows more and more violent throughout the course of the film. This is not a film about civil rights or race relations. But the continual panning back to this family, the racism of the suburbs, and the racism of the news interviews, might make you think otherwise. This serves only to distract the viewer from the descent into madness on the part of Matt Damon’s character. It does serve the film thematically, however, although it does so in a rather simplistic fashion.
I’ll come back to racism and integration in a moment. Let’s turn to Matt Damon’s character. Not unlike this review, it takes a little bit of time before the film finally gets around to Gardner Lodge. When it finally does, it is in the midst of a home invasion, that starts the descent into madness that the film promises us. And descend it does, although not with the velocity that you might expect. In fact, after the home invasion, life goes surprisingly back to normal for the Lodges, with all of the quirkiness of a typical Coen Brothers script. This is one of the film’s great weaknesses – it bounces back and forth between its tones of tragedy and comedy, making an actual arc hard to discern until the film dives headfirst into the final act. Once it finally does, the character motivations that are needed for some of the more horrid crimes of the film are surprisingly lacking. If anything, this seems to be an argument for human depravity, but that hardly makes it a Christian argument. This is because there’s a very important character I haven’t talked about yet.
Suburbicon is a film about evil people, but it is not a cautionary tale, which typically contain a rather obvious “moral of the story,” as well as a character who serves as the moral center. This film contains no such moral center, but it does contain an innocence center in Nicky Lodge. Even as everything around him devolves into depravity and chaos – and virtually every character is outed as a villain in some way – he continues to be a symbol of the rare uncontaminated child. But the film’s solution to Nicky’s horrible life circumstances is not to remove him from the dangerous family and place him with a caring one – the film has that opportunity and very intentionally passes it up. Instead, the solution the film would have us pursue is one where the child has no family, and is better off that way.
This is where the racism of the town comes into play more directly. The film wants to be a deconstruction both of the “good old days” of traditional 1950s white America, as well as a deconstruction of the family unit that typifies that same era. In the former case, there is value in the point, but other films make it better. In the latter case, it’s an erroneous connection, and underlines the film’s deep need for a redemptive conclusion. The film alternates between tonedeafness at just how dark its humor is, and outright forgetting that it’s supposed to be satire. Ironically, in bringing in the very real struggles of a black family trying to live in white America, they are given no sense of agency, and feels like a cheap attempt to garner audience goodwill. The serious has no real voice in the shadow of the absurd.
Ultimately, Suburbicon is effective at neither its darkness nor its satire, and settles for poorly conceived and extremely misguided philosophy, even if well-acted and competently directed. There are moments of cleverness, and the cast is quite fun to watch (Oscar Isaac in particular, who is not in the film for long enough), but the film has little value in terms of a serious cultural conversation.