George Clooney as a director has been hit-and-miss for me, dropping perhaps to his lowest point last time around with the joyless misfire The Monuments Men. Well, SUBURBICON is not that. It’s a sweet, sweet romp with genuine suspense and cartoonish violence that aimed for a frolicsome good ride and hits its mark.
A cheery intro featuring an animated brochure takes us through the titular community in ’50s America with thousands of affluent, sparkly and very white residents. When it’s revealed that the latest family to arrive in the neighborhood is black, people seem at first too stunned to react. Living directly across the Meyers are the Lodges – businessman Gardner (Matt Damon), wife Rose (Julianne Moore) and their young son Nicky (Noah Jupe). One night little Nicky is awakened by his father with the distinctly ominous words “There are some men in the house” and has to witness two thugs brutalize his family, including his mom’s twin sister Maggie (also played by Moore). The plot thickens when a standard police line-up doesn’t go as planned.
The screenplay, penned by Clooney, Grant Heslov and the Coen Brothers, bears the unmistakable handprint of Joel and Ethan, with particular echoes of Fargo and The Ladykillers. While the repertoire of greed, murderous schemes gone wrong, eccentric characters down to the oddball investigator might feel a bit familiar by now, this one is sharp, consistently engrossing, not to mention decidedly darker.
Indeed, Suburbicon is another one of those drama/comedy borderline cases that would dismay some people no matter how it’s categorized. You could tell Clooney probably wanted it to be more of a drama, adding in – not necessarily to the film’s advantage – a racial dimension that’s largely unrelated to the central storyline. The scenes of racists mobs surrounding and vandalizing the Meyers’ house chillingly call to mind recent footage we’ve seen out of Charlottsville. For all the apparent good intentions behind it, however, this doesn’t seem like the ideal context to address the issue.
Damon, as already noted in my thoughts on Downsizing, is always dependably good. Both him and – in a sense – Moore play against type here and deliver scary/funny/yummy performances. In terms of awards prospects, theirs may not seem to be the roles that typically get singled out but Moore as the diabolic twin might strike the right chord. The cheeky-turned-testy exchange between her Maggie and the insurance claims investigator played by Oscar Isaac is wonderfully acted. And her final monologue showcases this Oscar winner’s expressive prowess. Jupe also proves to be a real find, communicating with nuance the fear of child gradually figuring out the perilous situation he’s in.
Clooney’s direction, though somewhat overshadowed by the Coens’ influence, is solid and effective. The botched police lineup, timed and cut with great precision, creates instant tension. From there on, he manages to build escalating momentum that’s only fueled by the occasional comedic relief.
In other news, British filmmaker Andrew Haigh’s follow-up to his widely acclaimed 45 Years (and before that Weekend), LEAN ON PETE, is both a marked departure from his previous work and a gentle reminder of his greatest strengths.
Charting the journey of 16-year-old wannabe athlete Charley (Charlie Plummer) from the care of his negligent father to a race track where he befriends the titular horse and beyond, it offers not the kind of surgical dissection of couple dynamics we’ve come to associate him with, but an intimate, delicate portrait of someone trying to find his way.
With a straightforward narrative that takes you through the various stops Charley makes and the people he meets along the way, Lean on Pete doesn’t feel plotted but more like an exercise in imagining a person’s long, messy history, however unspectacular that may seem. Haigh excels at capturing day-to-day details which ensures the authenticity of his characters. And his trademark unsensationalistic approach strips away the dramatics to reveal something raw and real.
While this type of quiet, unassuming film is often unfairly overlooked the Academy, the creative vision and restraint involved often get rewarded at festivals, so don’t be surprised if Haigh or his team ends up on the winner’s list this time next week – at least Plummer should be considered the frontrunner for the best young performer prize that Venice hands out every year.
If my first reports from Venice have sounded consistently positive, it’s because the competition lineup really delivered so far. With the exception of Paul Schrader’s First Reformed, which I’m not as enamored with as most, I haven’t yet disliked anything I ‘ve seen.
But of course, with six more days to go, there’s still potential for that.