“Suburbicon” has a message about first impressions: Don’t trust them.
First impression of the 1950s planned community of the title: Introduced in a chirpy jingle, it’s a clean, safe, placid place to raise a family. Streets are wide. Houses are tidy. Neighbors are friendly. Faces are white.
Just below the surface, though, it’s a cauldron of festering racism. When a black family moves in, that cauldron boils over.
First impression of a seemingly typical ‘50s white nuclear family living in that neighborhood: Pretty much sweetness and light, with dad (Matt Damon) holding down a good executive-level job, while the home fires are tended by his sister-in-law (Julianne Moore), who helps to care for her wheelchair-bound twin sister (Moore) and the couple’s well-behaved young son (Noah Jupe).
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Just below the surface, well …
Know this: Although George Clooney is the director and a co-writer of the screenplay (along with frequent collaborator Grant Heslov), the two most important names on the list of key production personnel are Joel and Ethan Coen.
For all intents and purposes, this is a Coen Brothers movie.
In many ways, it’s as harsh and pitiless as their “No Country for Old Men,” achieving that level of hair-raising darkness with a brutal home-invasion sequence near the beginning.
And in terms of its characters, it harks back to the Coens’ breakout feature, “Blood Simple,” where bungling criminality on the part of half-bright people has fatal consequences.
Oh, and one more thing: The Coens’ macabre sense of humor, also a feature of, among others, “Blood Simple,” “Miller’s Crossing” and “Burn After Reading” (starring, Clooney, as it happens), is very much a part of the package. The way they weaponize the humble peanut butter and jelly sandwich is, in a sick and twisted sort of way, pretty funny.
“Suburbicon” is essentially two movies coexisting uneasily side-by-side.
There’s the Clooney/Heslov skewering of Eisenhower-era complacency and hypocrisy in their dramatization of the white mob besieging the black family. That conflict is patterned after an actual incident in the planned community of Levittown, Pennsylvania, in 1957.
Both sides are not well-defined in that section. The white mob brays and riots while the black family is almost saintly in its forbearance.
The Coen section, derived from a script they sent to Clooney in the late 1990s, is much more impactful, with Damon giving a performance that renders his character downright chilling, and young Jupe doing heart-rending work as a child emotionally buffeted by the grievously flawed behavior of the adults who are supposed to love and protect him.
Having acted in four previous Coen Brothers movies — “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” “Intolerable Cruelty,” “Burn After Reading” and “Hail, Caesar!” — it’s probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that Clooney is so adept at directing their work.
Clearly, these guys are all on the same mordant wavelength.
☆☆☆ out of 4
Cast: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac.
Director: George Clooney
Running time: 1:45
Rated: R for violence, language and some sexuality.