Movie reviews: 'Suburbicon' beautifully dark thriller
Published Friday, October 27, 2017 6:00AM EDT
SUBURBICON: 4 STARS
In “Suburbicon” director George Clooney pays tribute to the great melodramatic thrillers of the past with a timely story about two families, one in a quagmire of their own making, another harassed by outside forces.
Set in Suburbicon, a picture perfect suburb, new, sparkling with all the amenities, we first meet Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) and his family, wife Rose (Julianne Moore), son Nicky (Noah Jupe) and sister-in-law Margaret (also Julianne Moore). It’s a “Leave it to Beaver” life until a home invasion shatters the American Dream idyll. “Nothing like that ever happened here,” a neighbour says. “This was a safe place.”
Meanwhile an African-American family moves in next door and immediately becomes the target of racial intolerance from the townsfolk. Based on the real-life harassment of the Myers family, husband William (Leith M. Burke), wife Daisy (Karimah Westbrook) and son Andy (Tony Espinosa) in Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1957, the citizens of Suburbicon create a twenty-four-hour-a-day disturbance outside their home, making normal life almost impossible inside.
As the police investigate the invasion and the murder of Rose, uncomfortable questions arise. When an insurance inspector (Oscar Isaac) starts poking around it, little Nicky begins to suspect his father might not be the man he thought he was.
On one fateful night tensions come to boil at both the Lodge and Myers households.
There will be no spoilers here, just know that “Suburbicon” plays like the leering devil child of Alfred Hitchcock and David Lynch or the evil godchild of the Coen Brothers, who wrote the original script before Clooney and long-time collaborator Grant Heslov did a rewrite. It’s a beautifully nasty film, nicely made but marching to the beat of a very dark heart.
Against a seemingly wholesome backdrop, Clooney paints a picture of greed, murder, racism and infidelity. There are laughs—like the ridiculous sight of Damon riding a kid's bicycle away from a crime scene—but make no mistake this is not “Ocean’s Eleven.” He builds the story block-by-block, carefully creating character facades only to shatter them. Hardly anyone is who they seem. Only Nicky is pure-of-heart and if this was real life, Nicky would need some serious therapy. It’s gripping and grim stuff about the American Dream gone wrong.
Murder and infidelity are, I guess, the timeless aspects of the story. The racism, particularly in light of recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia, brings a timely and urgent facet. The portrayal of the racism levelled at the Myers family is ugly and, sadly, all too believable. The “decent” folks of Suburbicon are all too quick to grab a Confederate flag when an African-American family moves in next door. It’s a strong anti-segregation message that contrasts the craven behaviour of the Lodge family.
Damon doles out the creepy vibe sparingly, brings the character to a slow simmer, only to have it boil when things go sideways. Moore is a dim-witted femme fatale with a mean streak. Isaac inserts some smarmy energy mid-movie, but it is Jupe as little Nicky who grounds things. We see Suburbicon’s carefully constructed world fall apart through his eyes, taking the ride with him. He’s a Hitchcockian figure in short pants, the boy who knew too much, and he’s an effective mirror of the dangers of conformity.
“Suburbicon” is a horror film, but the monster is us.
WONDERSTRUCK: 2 ½ STARS
The new film from “Far From Heaven” director Todd Haynes is show-me-don’t-tell-me cinema that comes close to being a sublime time at the movies but falls just short.
Based on children's novel, written and illustrated by Brian Selznick, “Wonderstruck” weaves together two separate but related stories.
Ben’s (Oakes Fegley) story takes place in 1977. He’s a preteen living with his aunt in Minnesota following the death of his mother in a car accident. He’s unhappy, missing his mom and eager to reconnect with a father he never knew. Rummaging through his mother’s stuff he finds clues about his father’s whereabouts in New York City just before a lightning strike renders him deaf in both ears. Despite not being able to hear, he runs away to the big city.
Meanwhile Rose’s (Millicent Simmonds) tale takes place fifty years earlier. It’s 1927 and the little girl, deaf since birth, is living with her father, a stern New Jersey businessman. Obsessed with film and stage star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) she sets off to New York City to meet her idol. There’s more to Rose’s story, but no spoilers here.
Up until this point, Haynes uses every ounce of artistry in his considerable arsenal to bring these stories to life. New York, both in the 20s and 70s, is presented in vivid detail. Both stories are told with minimum dialogue—show-me-don’t-tell-me—with Rose’s time on screen mimicking a silent movie while Ben’s is more impressionistic, creating a vibrant portrait of NYC’s chaotic 1970s street life.
The film works best when Haynes lets the pictures do the work. For much of its running time “Wonderstruck” plays like a dream, when it gets down to brass tacks—tying up the story threads—it disappoints, allowing reality to crash the party. What begins as a beautifully crafted flight of fancy grounds itself with a thud in the final half hour with a series of incredulous coincidences.
THE FLORIDA PROJECT: 4 ½ STARS
“The Florida Project,” mixes joy with heartbreak in a story about life just outside the doors of the Magic Kingdom.
Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives at the Magic Castle Motel, a dowdy Florida pink dump located just behind Disney World. Halley (Bria Vinaite), her ex-stripper mom, barely makes ends meet. She’s almost always late with the weekly rent she owes to the exasperated motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) and every thirty days they have to check out and check back in so as not to establish permanent residency. It’s a chaotic lifestyle but for Mooney, it’s normal. She’s a happy little girl who, with her friends, turns the motel and surroundings into their own Adventureland. They hustle the locals for ice cream money, spit on car windshields and get up to harmless no-good fun. She makes the best of a bad situation, comforted in the childlike belief that her mom and friends will always be there for her.
“The Florida Project” is, hands down, one of the best films of the year. Low-budget and naturalistic, it packs more punch than any superhero. Director Sean Baker defies expectations. He’s made a film about kids for adults that finds joy in rocky places. What could have been a bleak experience or an earnest message movie is brought to vivid life by characters that feel real.
It’s a story about poverty that neither celebrates nor condemns its characters. Mooney’s exploits are entertaining and yet an air of jeopardy hangs heavy over every minute of the movie. Baker knows that Halley and Moonie’s well being hangs by a thread but he also understands they exist in the real world and never allows their story to fall into cliché.
An electric and charismatic cast aids Baker. Prince makes Moonie the film’s beating heart while Vinaite is a live wire, simultaneously careless and protective. Dafoe hands in his most memorable performance in years as a man whose obvious empathy is coloured by the difficult choices he must make.
“The Florida Project” has heartbreaking moments but celebrates the power of friendship and the bond between mother and daughter. Mooney may be having a rough go of it now, but she’s not prepared to give up. Check out the unwitting metaphor for her own life she uses to describe her favourite landmark, a gnarled tree. “It’s fallen over,” she says, “but it’s still growing.”