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Finding the Good Coen Brothers Movie Inside ‘Suburbicon,’ a Bad George Clooney Movie

‘Suburbicon’ flopped at the box office for many reasons, not the least of which was bad word of mouth. But maybe the buzz would have been better had it been made by its original authors, Joel and Ethan Coen.

The Coen brothers looming behind George Clooney and Matt Damon Paramount/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The biggest takeaway from this weekend’s box-office returns wasn’t that Jigsaw rode his creepy little tricycle to the top spot (’tis the season and all that) but that George Clooney’s sixth feature as a director was one of the worst-performing wide releases in Paramount’s history. Much like the studio’s other notable award-season flop, Suburbicon was positioned, to some extent, as a critics’ darling, touting a crew of Oscar-winning and -nominated collaborators, but reviewers didn’t take the (awards) bait. It’s hard to find a more consistently savaged movie this year that doesn’t have the name Henry in the title.

As The Ringer’s K. Austin Collins has already pointed out, there are two movies in Suburbicon: a noir-tinged intrigue about a greedy, philandering office shnook (Matt Damon) who gets involved with some violent mobsters, and a historically oriented parable about an African American family that moves into Damon’s lily-white neighborhood—into the house behind him—and whips the entire community into a frenzy of racist hysteria.

In interviews, Clooney has explained that this second plotline was grafted by himself and screenwriter Grant Heslov onto a 30-year-old script by his pals and collaborators Joel and Ethan Coen in an attempt to add some tense, contemporary subtext to a story set 60 years in the past. Suffice to say, the transplant was not a success.

Wondering if Suburbicon would have been a better movie had its original authors made it themselves—whether back in the 1980s, when it was written, or now (and in either case, without anything like the parallel narrative slash civics lesson added by Clooney)—is a fun enough thought experiment (like imagining Martin Scorsese’s version of The Snowman). But it’s also genuinely frustrating, because there are elements in the recognizably Coenesque portion of Suburbicon that show the most cinema-savvy filmmakers around playing with the themes and iconography of two crucial midcentury movies—classics wedged at either end of World War II, describing a crisis of American moral authority from the point of view of a generation adjusting to the terrifying possibility that the grown-ups in their midst were less than perfect role models.

The first of these is Alfred Hitchcock’s brilliant 1943 thriller, Shadow of a Doubt, supposedly Hitchcock’s favorite of all his films. It’s the loosely fact-based story of a serial murderer, Charlie Oakley (Joseph Cotten) who’s relocated to idyllic Santa Rosa, California, in the wake of some slayings. Once arrived, he’s welcomed into the household of his brother Joseph and his teenage daughter, “Young” Charlie (Teresa Wright), who dotes on and idolizes the uncle she’s named after.

Ever the crafty postmodernists, the Coens invert Shadow of a Doubt by making Damon’s Suburbicon character, Gardner Lodge, an irredeemable fiend and his brother Mitch (Gary Basaraba) a mensch. The child’s-eye-perspective of the Coens’ screenplay, in which a younger character—in this case Gardner’s son Nicky (Noah Jupe)—comes to recognize the evil lurking under his own roof, recalls Hitchock’s classic, as do Gardner’s attempts to justify his criminal activities to his son.

A late Suburbicon monologue featuring Damon in psycho-killer mode seems partially modeled on Shadow of a Doubt’s most chilling scene: Uncle Charlie, now aware his niece knows about his alter ego as the “Merry Widow Murderer,” gives her a warning that doubles as an attempt to demolish her idealism. “You think you’re the clever little girl who knows something,” he scolds her. “Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip the fronts off of houses, you’d find swine? The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?”

Shadow of a Doubt doesn’t go as far as some of its director’s later films (like Strangers on a Train or especially Psycho) in implicating the audience in its psychopathic antagonist’s worldview; we’re always rooting for Young Charlie. But the combination of Cotten’s low-key charisma and the way the film depicts Santa Rosa as a suspiciously bland suburban paradise gives his words some sting. (The Coens liked Santa Rosa so much they used it as the setting for their black-and-white noir The Man Who Wasn’t There, a film that could have easily been retitled Shadow of a Doubt).

Hitchcock’s film is a daylight noir, and that same brightness unlocks its essential darkness. Not only does it suggest that spacious kitchens and tree-lined streets provide the perfect cover for a murderer, but Young Charlie’s ultimate choice to keep her uncle’s crimes a secret after his death makes for one of the most unsettling movie endings of the 1940s.

Flash forward a decade to 1956, and you get perhaps the most disturbing movie of the Eisenhower era: Nicholas Ray’s amazing Bigger Than Life. This film’s influence on Suburbicon is both general and wittily specific. As perhaps the definitive psychodrama about outsize patriarchal power, Bigger Than Life casts a long shadow. James Mason plays Ed Avery, a schoolteacher who attempts to combat a debilitating arterial disease with cortisone shots and gets transformed into a dangerous megalomaniac. This role served as inspiration for any number of cinematic bad dads to come.

As the film goes on, Ed’s increasingly menacing behavior toward his wife, Lou (Barbara Rush), and son Richie (Christopher Olsen) becomes emblematic of some barely suppressed rage; the devastating ambiguity at the heart of Ray’s film is whether his psychosis is a side effect of the medicine he’s taking or if the cortisone shots are merely enhancing a latent masculine aggression. Bigger Than Life is shot in a delirious melodramatic style, a pileup of disorienting, jagged angles and spatial distortion that renders the era’s dreams of domesticity nightmarishly surreal, but it’s also riotously funny: When Lou tries to dissuade Ed from harming Richie by invoking God’s instruction in the Bible to Abraham to spare Isaac, he responds thunderously that “God was wrong.”

Even if Damon doesn’t come close to Mason’s brilliantly controlled mania, it seems that the Suburbicon script is trying to get at some of the same ideas as Ray’s masterpiece: that the most insecure men are the ones who try the hardest to project authority; that some fathers would sooner sacrifice their sons than admit their own failings; that wives who defy their husbands put themselves at fatal risk; and that enthusiastic conformity to middle-class values is its own form of delusion. But the surest sign that Suburbicon owes a debt to Bigger Than Life is the significant role played by a glass of milk—a prop that represents the Coens’ slyest gag. In Ray’s film, Ed decides one night that Richie will be punished for not completing his homework by not being allowed to have any milk, a broad metaphor for arbitrarily deciding to deny life’s essentials. When Lou smuggles Richie some milk, her husband takes it as the ultimate betrayal.

Milk also figures into Suburbicon, both as a symbol of whiteness, as when Karimah Westbrook’s character tries to buy a carton at the local store only to be told that the price has skyrocketed, in the store owner’s transparent attempt to dissuade black people from shopping there—and also, perversely, as a method of murder.

Near the end of the film, when Gardner’s insurance-fraud scheme has backfired to a fatal extent, he sits down little Nicky to give him a choice: either accept that Father Knows Best or join the corpses in the upstairs bedroom. As Gardner rambles on, he sips from a glass of milk that, unbeknownst to him, has been laced with a lethal dose of prescription medication. The superficially benevolent, secretly despicable dad, finally taken down by a wholesome but clandestinely poisoned beverage, is a joke worthy of the Coens’ best and most complex work. It’s a shame it ended up in this movie.