By Adam Nayman
On paper (where it was doubtlessly first written, probably with a typewriter, 30 years ago) Joel and Ethan Coen’s script for Suburbicon evokes sinister, postwar domestic melodramas like Shadow of a Doubt and Bigger Than Life. On screen, as directed by George Clooney, it evokes—or, more accurately, pilfers, poorly and to no discernible purpose—the paranoid-thriller wing of the Coens’ own filmography.
Matt Damon stars as a bulky, unmemorably malevolent pater who embroils his family—including his wife and her twin sister (both played by Julianne Moore) and young son (Noah Jupe)—in an insurance scam with lethal consequences; it’s a broad, glowering, miserable performance that unlocks little of the actor’s skill. The only cast member who seems to be enjoying himself is Oscar Isaac as a skeptical policy checker, perhaps because, with his slick wardrobe and sly smile, he seems to be impersonating his own director in intolerable-screwball-Coen mode.
What will probably get Suburbicon some attention is a running subplot about the festering white-supremacist sentiments within the eponymous planned community, but unlike in A Serious Man or even O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens don’t explore American clannishness (or klannishness) so much as exploit it—the African-American family being menaced by Confederate flag-waving neighbours remain silent, stoic, and nobly impenetrable throughout. There’s pertinent wittiness in the way Robert Elswit’s cinematography makes all the whitest objects (from a chloroform-soaked rag to a Suspicion-looking glass of milk) pop off the screen, but such touches around the edges matter little in a movie that just isn’t there.