This story contains spoilers for the plot of Suburbicon.
When George Clooney first worked on Suburbicon, he was attached as an actor. His frequent collaborators, the Coen brothers, had cast him in the small role of a crafty insurance investigator in a dark 1950s comedy about a murder plot gone wrong. The project, planned in the mid-2000s, never came to fruition, and the Coens and Clooney moved on to other things (though they continued making movies together). Years later, Clooney and his writing partner Grant Heslov began early work on a film about the Myers—an African American family who moved into a postwar, suburban Pennsylvania community and faced harassment and violence from their white neighbors.
“[We’re] hearing about scapegoating minorities and building fences and all those kinds of things. We always thought it was good to remind ourselves that these are not new elements,” Clooney told me about the genesis of the film, which he directed and which opened last weekend to poor reviews and low ticket sales. “We didn’t want it to be sort of preaching to the choir. It was more fun if you could put it in some form of entertainment. And I [remembered the Coen brothers] had written this film Suburbicon a long time ago.”
That was the start of a project that, in its final form, feels somewhat baffling—a cross between a madcap comedy and a much more serious, historical examination of a horrifying moment in American history. Clooney’s Suburbicon, which he co-wrote with Heslov, retained much of the Coens’ original storyline (they also receive writing credits). The film follows a seemingly ordinary businessman, Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), who conspires with his sister-in-law Margaret (Julianne Moore) to kill his wife Rose (also Moore) and collect on her life insurance. Much of the film is told through the eyes of his skeptical son, Nicky (Noah Jupe), who eventually figures out what is going on, as does the investigator, Bud Cooper (Oscar Isaac in the role originally intended for Clooney).
But then there’s also the African American Mayers family (played by Leith M. Burke, Karimah Westbrook, and Tony Espinosa), who move into the community of Suburbicon. They’re tormented by their white neighbors, barred from shopping at local stores, and eventually see a mass riot outside their house. There’s some suggestion in the film that the Mayerses are being blamed for the crimes Gardner and Margaret are actually committing, but the connection is very loose, and Gardner seems unaware of the racial violence taking place in his neighborhood.
To Clooney, who spoke to me at the Toronto International Film Festival, that ignorance was the point—that this screwball murder mystery is a distraction from something far more disturbing. “I got an idea about sort of mixing these two [stories] up and having everybody looking in the wrong direction. I thought it would be the fun way to talk about these issues,” he said. “[Suburbicon] was really written as a piece to talk about the idea that there’s a group of white Americans who are terrified that they’re losing their place in society and are blaming minorities for it.”
So in Suburbicon, the audience sees racism boil to the surface. But Gardner and Margaret, simultaneously, are serving as stand-ins for the kind of “white angst” Clooney said he grew up with in Kentucky (he was born and raised primarily in Lexington and Augusta). Their ignorance of the prejudice around them is inflated to almost comical proportions. It’s a tough metaphor to grasp, though, because the Gardner plot (in essence, the Coen brothers part of the script) is dense with double-crossing and complex chicanery. Simply put, it makes sense that Gardner would barely be aware of anything else going on around him: He’s too busy trying to cover up his crime, so his ignorance reads as plot-specific, rather than as symptomatic of larger prejudice.
“I think it’s really important to remind ourselves that every time we see these things, this is ingrained in our soul, and it’s part of our original sin, and it’s something that we still have to exorcise,” Clooney said. He and his team weren’t trying to make Suburbicon a direct allegory—as he stated over and over, his primary interest was making an entertaining film in the spirit of the original script. But, as Heslov pointed out, midway through the project’s production schedule, something happened that further changed their view of the story—Donald Trump was elected president. “When we wrote the script, we, like most people, didn’t expect Trump to win,” Heslov told me. “Yeah, [the original script] was funnier. I don’t predict anything anymore,” Clooney deadpanned.
Suddenly, the story of an insular community pushing back against people they see as outsiders felt even more urgent, and Clooney said he adjusted the overall tone of the film as a result, including cutting a subplot involving Josh Brolin as a foul-mouthed baseball coach. “The killers were [originally] goofier,” Clooney added. “The Coen brothers wrote them very similar to the guys in Fargo. There was some pretty slapstick stuff.”
Which helps explain why Suburbicon ended up feeling so tonally muddled. The film has a grim feel even in its more obviously humorous set pieces, but that only makes the contrast between its two storylines feel clunkier. The Gardner plot is so heightened (the aforementioned contract killers he hires are a ridiculous pair right from the Coens’ playbook), while the tormenting of the Mayers family is entirely drawn from real life. Another issue is that the Mayerses barely have any lines of dialogue, a fact Clooney acknowledged in our interview.
“In all fairness, there are a lot of people better qualified to make the African American story in suburbia, I think. I grant that. … There is a version of this film that I’d like to see … Ava DuVernay make, that I’d like to see Steve McQueen make,” he said. “There’s a version of this film I’d like to see from the other side that could be better represented by someone who can speak to that better than me, and probably should. … I think my version was what I know, which is [about] white angst and the fear of losing your place to minorities.”
Clooney knows the rare clout he has as a director—his superstardom affords him the chance to make movies studios might otherwise balk at funding. “Look, I got paid $50,000 to write, produce, and direct this film over a two-year period of time, and I have no backend. I don’t do these things for money anymore,” he said. “You’re only relevant for a certain amount of time. … While they let [me] do it, it’s incumbent on [me] to say, well then, let’s go make movies that nobody would.” Suburbicon is certainly the kind of mid-budget drama that major studios don’t make as often as they used to—but Clooney, for all his good intentions, may indeed not have been the right person to make it.