Beware of spoilers.
Last week I went to see Suburbicon more or less at random. I’d spent the past several days studying for the GRE (read, trying to reteach myself all of high-school math in four days). On test day, I ate a big breakfast at 8:30 in the morning, and went across town to meet my arithmetical fate. By the time I got out of the test, it was close to 3:00pm, I was hungry enough to eat an ox, and I was very very tired. That left me with a choice. I could go home, eat a late lunch/early dinner, and spend the rest of the day loafing about my apartment. Or I could go to the theater, eat a crappy hotdog, and buy a ticket for the next movie playing. The next movie was Suburbicon.
Now, that’s a long way of explaining why my attention was somewhat divided during the film’s opening credits. Yes, I saw the opening shot and the introductory sequence, but I was really quite hungry, and attentions paid to the cheap movie theater hotdog I was eating were not paid to the names of the director or the writers. As a result, my experience of the film was essentially without preexisting expectations. From my vague memory of the trailer, I knew it took place in suburbia, that some kind of crime would take place, and that Matt Damon was in it. And that was all I knew.
“Hey,” I thought about a third of the way into the movie, “It’s like someone tried to rewrite Fargo to be about suburbia instead of rural Minnesota.” The film’s main plot line, while by no means identical with Fargo’s, features the same peculiar mingling of domestic drama with grisly crime thriller. More than that, however, the humor seemed to be very much in the Cohen Brothers’ style. From Fargo, to The Big Lebowski, to O Brother Where Art Thou, the Coen brothers’ characters are always ridiculous and comical, but their ridiculousness comes from a kind of hyperreality. The Coen brothers excel at taking the traits of ordinary people and incorporating them into bizarre and archetypal figures.
But, for all that, Suburbicon was clearly not a Coen Brothers’ film. The lighting and colors were almost right, but that can be explained away by coincidence, given the archetypal suburban setting. But the cinematography was different. The Coen brothers like to use the camera to bring us into the world of the characters. Their style seems to intentionally overexpose; there’s something both intimate and inflexible about it. Suburbicon was different. Without seeing it again, I can’t put my finger on the exact difference. But it seemed to me that there was greater distance between the camera and its subjects. In some ways it was a much more visually conservative film than one would expect from the Coen Brothers.
With the end credits came the solution to the mystery: “Directed by George Clooney. Written by George Clooney, Grant Heslov, and,” the kicker, “Joel and Ethan Coen.” So that explains the discrepancy. It’s not a Coen Brothers’ film, but it does bear some of the unmistakeable signs of their handiwork. And that makes for some interesting comparisons with the Coen Brothers’ other films, notably Fargo.
Before I move on to a discussion of several of Suburbicon’s failings compared with Fargo, however, I should stop to acknowledge that I did actually enjoy Suburbicon. Critics, it seems, did not. The film has a 4.9/10 on IMDB, and only a 26% rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Audiences rated it even lower, at 24%. From that, you might expect a film that completely failed to carry an emotional charge, one that was more painful than it was enjoyable to watch. I’m not going to argue that it was a masterpiece, by any means, but nor was it a complete artistic disaster. Do I have any pressing need to see it again? No. Do I regret seeing it at all? No.
So, at the risk of making a long post longer, what were two of the mistakes made in Suburbicon as opposed to Fargo?
First up, we have a broad similarity in the two films’ plot structures. In general terms, they each feature two at least nominally interconnected plot lines. In Fargo, we first have the crime and it’s rapid devolution into bloody chaos. In this plot line Jerry, the husband of the intended kidnapping victim and the orchestrator of the plot, serves as the principal protagonist. We watch his rapid loss of control over the crime through his eyes. The second plot line follows Marge, the policewoman who picks up the pieces and eventually restores the world of the film to some semblance of justice. The important thing, here, is that the two plot lines, though they follow different protagonists, are fundamentally interconnected. Jerry’s activities bring chaos and violence to the world of the film, and Marge’s activities restore a situation of relative peace and order. What one protagonist does, the other later arrives to uncover and undo.
Suburbicon’s dual plot lines, on the other hand, are little more than tangentially related. The primary plot line follows Nicky, a little boy whose father murders his mother, embroiling the entire family in criminal intrigue. This is the plot line that most resembles Fargo, because of its domestic-criminal eccentricity. Nicky’s father, Lodge (Matt Damon), commits a crime, only to see it spiral rapidly out of control. The secondary plot line, intercut with the first, deals with their neighbors. The Mayers are a black family moving into a predominantly white suburban town. The racist townsfolk try to drive the Mayers family away, and the Mayers family stands its ground.
These two plot lines never truly link up. At points throughout the film, Nicky and the Mayers’ son Andy meet up in their back yards to play and to commiserate over their respective situations, but that is more or less the extent of it. Any plot relation between the two stories is therefore allegorical.
That, in and of itself, is not a problem. Allegorically tied stories can exist effectively side by side, but in this case the connection between the two stories is hazy. Perhaps the main plot line comments on the Mayers’ situation in that it shows that, despite the townsfolk’s repeated objections to the contrary, it is the white majority of the town that is responsible for all of this violence. If so, it’s simply an unnecessary statement. We can see as much in the behaviors of the respective characters. The Mayers are clearly victims, and the townsfolk persecuting them are clearly violent maniacs. Perhaps, on the other hand, the secondary plot line comments on the situation in Nicky’s family, extending Lodge’s greed and violence to society as a whole.
Either way, the linkage is frail and unclear, a situation made worse by the total lack of development in the secondary plot line. The Mayers are rarely present onscreen, and their characters are fundamentally underdeveloped. At best, they serve as generic symbols for the victims of racial oppression. At worst, they serve as a socially conscious appendix in a movie otherwise devoted entirely to criminal and domestic drama. They come across as an afterthought rather than an integral component of the film. In that way, a story that might have carried important and moving social implications falls far short of its mark.
Comparing the multiple plot lines of Fargo and Suburbicon thus stands to teach us an important lesson. Multiple plot lines can be used effectively, but there must be a clear narrative or allegorical link between them. Moreover, both plot lines should be developed enough to present their own unique and living characters.
The other major comparison to draw here resides in the nature of the two films’ protagonists.
In Fargo, the first plot line’s protagonist is Jerry: a down on his luck husband who decides to orchestrate the kidnapping of his own wife in an attempt to swindle her overbearing father out of a large ransom. Jerry’s efforts are, tragically, characterized by incompetence and negative coincidence. Anything that can go wrong does go wrong, leading to comical but also grim results.
In some senses this means that Jerry is powerless. Every effort he makes to dig himself out of his situation only lands him in a worse situation. But the important feature of his character is that he remains an active participant in the film’s events. In fact, if Jerry played a passive role in Fargo the film wouldn’t have much of a story to tell. His life would go on miserable but hum-drum, and nothing would ever happen. The brilliance of Fargo is that Jerry is his own victim. Despite any appearances of powerlessness, he does have one all important power: the power to make things worse.
Compare him to Nicky, the protagonist of Suburbicon. Nicky is a little boy caught up in a criminal web not of his own making. It is Lodge who murders the boy’s mother for the insurance money, Lodge who fails to appease his accomplices, and so on and so forth. Lodge, in Suburbicon, fills the role that Jerry fills in Fargo: possessing the power only to destroy himself and others. But the film is undeniably about Nicky. And what can Nicky do? He can watch. He can refuse to participate in his father’s crimes. And he can seek help from his uncle. The film’s climax sees him sit back and watch as his father commits one final act of self-destruction, eating a poisoned PB&J sandwich that was meant for Nicky. Put simply, Nicky’s scope of action is fundamentally passive.
And that lends the film a kind of awkwardness. The level of energy is extremely high whenever we watch Lodge, but it drops off again whenever we return to Nicky’s perspective. Because Nicky does not act, he does not truly feel like the leading character. We sympathize with his situation, and we understand that the film is about him, but we do not center ourselves in his being. He feels flat. As Robert McKee observes in his book, Story, it is not the details surrounding a character that make him come to life, but his engagement in conflict. The forces arrayed against Nicky are great, but he is not really the one to engage them.
What, then, could the filmmakers have done to keep Suburbicon about Nicky, but to engage him more fully in the film’s conflicts? There are a number of solutions, but the most conservative one, on a structural level, is simply to make him more investigative. Reduce the amount of plot information we receive through Lodge, the Claims Investigator, the Police, and the Mafia, and force Nicky to act in order to uncover his father’s criminal activity. Center us more fully in Nicky’s experience, limiting the information we have to the information he has, and the level of energy in the film suddenly leaps forward. Nicky goes from being a passive proxy for the audience to being an active participant in his own fate.
What is the lesson we can take away from this comparison, then? In truth, it’s nothing more than a variation on what is already common knowledge among storytellers: don’t write passive protagonists. But that does not mean that protagonists cannot be powerless. Jerry has very limited power over his own fate, but he remains an engaging character because he becomes a very active participant in that powerlessness. Nicky also has very limited power, but he fails to become an engaging character because his own behavior has no bearing on that sense of powerlessness. Our attention in Suburbicon thus finds itself drawn away from the protagonist at every opportunity, leaving the film with an unbalanced feeling.