FIRST LOOK

‘Suburbicon’ Review: George Clooney Takes On White Supremacy, With Echoes of Charlottesville

Clooney’s latest directorial effort stars Matt Damon and Julianne Moore as a couple who move into an idyllic 1950s suburb amid racial unrest. It couldn’t be timelier.

VENICE, Italy — George Clooney and his lawyer-wife, Amal Clooney, made headlines recently when they announced their decision to donate $1 million to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a non-profit organization that monitors and litigates against domestic hate groups. The move came in the wake of a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one woman—32-year-old activist Heather Heyer—dead after being struck by a white supremacist’s vehicle in an ISIS-style terrorist attack.

“Amal and I wanted to add our voice (and financial assistance) to the ongoing fight for equality,” the couple said in a statement. “What happened in Charlottesville, and what is happening in communities across our country, demands our collective engagement to stand up to hate.”

Theirs stood in sharp contrast to the reaction of President Donald Trump, who has galvanized white nationalist groups over the past two years with his xenophobic “America First” message and sporadic dog-whistling. In lieu of repudiating neo-Nazis outright, the president unleashed a remarkable fit of false equivalence, claiming there was violence “on many sides” in Charlottesville, as well as “good people on both sides.”

Which brings us to Suburbicon, Clooney’s latest directorial effort. The film, which hits theaters nationwide on October 27, made its premiere at the Venice Film Festival and, in light of the appalling events of Charlottesville, couldn’t be timelier.

The year is 1959. The setting: an idyllic American suburb dubbed “Suburbicon,” a clear stand-in for Levittown. Gardner (Matt Damon) and Nancy Lodge (Julianne Moore), along with their young son Nicky (Noah Jupe, remarkable), appear a paragon of middle-class contentment. Gardner is a financial VP at a successful ad firm, while his striking wife Nancy spends her days loitering on the porch, watching her son play in the yard. Though Nancy is confined to a wheelchair, she remains sharp as a tack, and is often joined by her twin sister Margaret (also Julianne Moore).

One day, William (Leith M. Burke) and Daisy Myers (Karimah Westbrook) move in next door. They are an African-American family—Suburbicon’s first—which sets off a powder keg of hatred and prejudice. At a chaotic town hall meeting, one “progressive” village official claims, “We favor integration, but only at such a time that the Negro feels he’s ready for it… We won’t go backwards.” William and Daisy have a son Nicky’s age, Andy (Tony Espinosa), and the two innocent children, instantly bond over their mutual love of baseball.

The paranoid townsfolk are far less inviting. Suspicious stares and casual racism soon give way to a mob of foaming-at-the-mouth whites camped outside their home. They spew hate at the top of their lungs, bang on instruments, set fire to their vehicle, and, in one eerily zeitgeisty moment, hang a Confederate flag outside their window.

“Don’t show ‘em you’re scared,” Andy tells Noah, repeating his father’s advice. “Don’t show ‘em nothin’.”

But the Myers, a wholesome god-fearing family, aren’t the problem. The real local menace lies next door, as a terrifying home invasion sets off a string of violent events that leaves several six feet under. Naturally, all the blame is pinned on the arrival of the first black family.

Clooney’s film boasts ace lensing, courtesy of the legendary Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood), that vividly captures this Pleasantville-esque suburbia, as well as top-notch turns all-around, including Damon and Moore as a pair in way over their heads, and child actors Noah Jupe and Tony Espinosa, in whose budding friendship lies hope for the future. Oscar Issac also pops up in the latter half as a prickly insurance claims investigator, chewing up the scenery. But the true engine of Suburbicon is its darkly satirical screenplay—one first written by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen in the ‘80s shortly after Blood Simple, and tweaked by Clooney and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov. Its twists and turns are aplenty, and with each passing sin, the hypocrisy of white supremacy is further exposed.

According to Clooney, Suburbicon was inspired by the real-life plight of William and Daisy Myers, who moved into Levittown, Pennsylvania, in 1957, and were harassed and tormented by the locals for months. Their windows were smashed by rocks, and a cross was set ablaze on their front lawn.

“Those in the North love to think they had nothing to do with [racism],” Clooney told The Hollywood Reporter. “They love to wash their hands and say: ‘Actually, we were the liberals. We were against slavery and pro-civil rights.’ And the truth of the matter was much more complicated. There were a lot of problems, particularly in places like Levittown.”

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While the Oscar-winning actor and humanitarian’s output behind the camera has been a very mixed bag of late (Monuments Men is a film that is best forgotten), this suspenseful satire not only feels entirely of-the-moment, but is Clooney’s best effort as a filmmaker since Good Night, and Good Luck. When he explores his passions, whether it be journalistic integrity or the false virtues of white American liberals, the man is a force to be reckoned with.