Monday, October 30, 2017

In Defense of Suburbicon (and Other Poorly Received Movies)

Among friends and colleagues there have been a few films that I've gotten flack for speaking highly of. And while I'll be the first to admit I can tend to resort to superlative praise maybe a little too often, it's exemplary of my taste in cinema--and taste is personal, subjective, and should be modified by the individual communicating it. Usually I know whether I'll love or hate a movie before I see it. Usually. I also believe in broadening one's sensibilities and trying out movies you may not expect to fit into the typical characteristics of your liking just to see what happens.

For several reasons I consider 2012 the date that marks my coming of age as having acquired a mature critical voice when speaking about movies. Examples of titles that fall into the category of which I am here attempting to describe include:
  • The Canyons (2013, Paul Schrader) 
  • The Counsellor (2013, Ridley Scott)
  • Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014, Scott)

Suburbicon (2017, George Clooney) is a period neo-noir that achieves pitch-perfection with its somber tone. (I intentionally chose to leave out adjectives like comedic, existential, and satirical because after calling it a film noir, those terms are redundant.)

Firstly, I'll start with my gripes concerning audience expectations and reactions. The critical climate around Suburbicon begins with people not realizing what a film noir is. Coincidentally, I've been reading Jim Thompson novels recently, and after last Saturday night when I visited the theatre to watch Suburbicon, I delved back into one to fall asleep to and found George Clooney to have nailed the genre aspects of his film.

Viewers who complain that Suburbicon is slow are failing to appreciate Clooney's stark crafting of a tone that expertly builds the suspense this genre piece exceeds in. Viewers who complain that Suburbicon misses the mark of what makes Coen Bros.' movies work so well are failing to understand that Clooney never implied that he was attempting to execute a style that pays homage to the Coens, and why should he?

I love that Clooney minimized his camera's movement to set his look apart from the Coens. And while I think perennial Coens' composer Carter Burwell is the most talented (intentional superlative praise) composer for contemporary films, to the degree that his melodies remain in my memory, hauntingly, relentlessly, they attain such prominence that comparatively I find Alexandre Desplat's original music for Suburbicon crucial to preserving the period feel and suburban setting of the diegesis, which works better because again, it points to a somber, emotionally dark void.

No, really, as I sat in the theatre one of my first thoughts through the first act was, "I love how serious this feels." So much is restrained: the camera, the music, the pacing. Whatever happened to less is more? To quote Bresson:
"Be sure of having used to the full all that is communicated by immobility and silence."
In defense of detractors who complain about Suburbicon's political misfires or irrelevance of the black family, THE MAYERS, it seems to be a case of a lack of placing the first-person point of view that the narrative establishes. The boy is trying to make sense of people, family, adults, and America; the black neighbors are just another ingredient in the mix. Suburbicon is primarily a hard-boiled crime tale so the sleazy townsfolk's oppressive conduct fits in with the stock characters the genre supplies.

Okay to take a break from my harangue, Suburbicon was shot on 35mm by Robert Elswit, ASC and the camera dept was led by gaffer Ian Kincaid along with key grip Chris Centrella. Ian and Chris are Robert Richardson's team and really nice guys in person. Suburbicon's look also benefits from playing out mostly in masters while when going into traditional coverage the subject is in profile or directly facing the lens, which is unusual, and looks great. Also classically adhering to the tenets of Hollywood noir of the 40s, Clooney frames graphic images like shadows defining the action or a struggle that plays out from a POV under the bed limited to black leather oxfords and bullets.

And yes, Suburbicon works as a superb comedy. It's different, that's for sure, but since when is that a bad thing? Matt Damon as GARDNER isn't as zany as he was in The Informant! (2009, Steven Soderbergh) or as over the top as typical Coen's protags when indulging in screwball, but this is another instance of just the right balance that cumulate in making Suburbicon work.

Maybe the reason I'm so defensive about all of this is because I'm still surprised initially when people in summation describe my taste in movies as "dark." Although I'm learning to accept it. After all, darkness isn't such a bad thing.

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