“Suburbicon” / “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”
For those who fondly remember last year’s The Lobster for its high concept and array of deadpan dialogue, you’re likely recalling the film’s first half. That’s the introduction of an emotionally impotent Colin Farrell into the film’s premise of mandatory coupling (with the one way out, of course). Acclimating to the rules of this universe, which deserves something stronger than the “esque” at the end of “Kafka-esque,” is a brutally funny exercise in watching people with no power still try and pump up their egos and game a dystopian system.
What viewers are less likely to remember is The Lobster’s bleaker, more violent second hour. Set mostly in the wilderland beyond the matchmaking resort, the second act focuses more on pain and mesmerization than humor. That’s about where The Killing of a Sacred Deer lives. It’s yet another movie from Greek luminary Yorgos Lanthimos that’s eerily easy to describe given how the watch is a cyclone of codes, impulses and perversions.
The movie begins with a heart surgeon, Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), acting strangely. Well, acting like he’s in a Lanthimos movie. He and his beautiful family — two children and his wife, Anna (Nicole Kidman) — appear content enough, but everyone talks like they’re in the first few seconds of an oral exam, maybe an interview with the secret police. Too polite. Too robotic. But at the same time, they’re too direct. The first few Farrell minutes see Steven mumbling on about the specifications of a watch he might buy in the same tones as he later mentions to a colleague that his daughter has begun menstruating. As it turns out, Steven gives that wristwatch to a teenager named Martin (played by Dunkirk standout Barry Keoghan); it appears the surgeon is mentoring the boy, taking him out to lunches, but that fact seems to be a secret from his family.
Soon, there is an imminent threat to the Murphy family. Martin is becoming possessive, behaving strangely, almost as though this is a pulpy movie about the too-perfect stranger who psychologically unravels. Almost. Steven is the only one who can stop it, by making the most morbid of choices. That’s as much as can be said about a late-blooming conceit in the movie that deserves not to be ruined. But again, the tragic, mythical task before the characters gets the same treatment in the script as that wristwatch. The family drama isn’t built on emotion; when Lanthimos attacks, it’s to the nerves and the intellect. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is going to lose some people who liked The Lobster because it briefly reminded them of Wes Anderson’s darker shades, but it proves Lanthimos is thinking bigger and that Farrell is his socially castrated muse, the heir apparent to Michael Douglas when it comes to leading men powerless to stop destroying their own lives.
As the stakes builds, the character configuration is perhaps the most interesting piece of the puzzle. The eyes of the doctor’s vulnerable family members begin to bore through the patriarch. They’re all more perceptive, more innocent, more deserving of life than him, but he’s the one gifted terrible power. And nobody’s eyes bore through people like Nicole Kidman’s. She continues her recent hot streak here, and it’s just as entertaining as it was four months ago in The Beguiled to see Kidman both desire and coldly evaluate who the movie ultimately sees as a weak brute in Colin Farrell.
In his absurdity, Lanthimos is a master of reframing our normal social quandaries as coiling, impossible circumstances. Here, the meaning of personal justice gets a Lobster treatment. “It’s metaphorical,” Martin even utters at one point of the choice facing Steven. The question here seems to be, how much of everyday life is held taut only by mutually assured destruction?
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And now for more people who’ve made careers of prodding the weak husband in over his head — Suburbicon is the latest script from the brothers Coen. But that’s kind of like saying The Snowman was the latest film from executive producer Martin Scorsese. (Which it said … in every trailer.) Suburbicon is certainly being marketed as the standardest Coen fare— with Matt Damon as a spiritual sibling to Fargo’s Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy). But if you’ve seen the trailers and thought to yourself, “The Coens letting George Clooney and Grant Heslov co-write and direct their script might be a bad sign,” well, you betcha. In fact, the film is even more of a Frankenstein’s monster than meets the eye. The foundation of the script was laid in the mid-’80s just after the Coens made Blood Simple. Clooney and Heslov actually made the movie last year. And that’s a bit like a gifted impressionist painter letting an ad agency finish one of his old, incomplete works.
With pedigree that’s really just wool over the eyes, Suburbicon is essentially a clinic in how not to make a satire. First, don’t satirize something that is beyond further satirizing — the white suburban spaces of the ‘50s pretty well got it 20 years ago from Pleasantville and the TV Land remake films of the ‘90s. Second, don’t announce your satire at fog-horn volume with a commercial for the town of Suburbicon (read: Levittown) and then have nothing further to investigate about the place’s deeper social customs. Third, don’t include token parties of inequivalent suffering to the rest of your characters and then not give them their due in the end.
One of the film’s two plots is about a boy witnessing the murder of his mother (Julianne Moore) by two home invaders, while his father (Matt Damon) and aunt (also Julianne Moore) are tied up and chloroformed. The other plot is about a black family that moves into this picket fence of a town, which prompts vulgar, unrelenting harrassment from the white residents.
The bifurcation creates a massive problem of tone and voice. As a visualist, Clooney gives us little to be fascinated by, and there’s fundamentally something wrong with the way he understands this script, or maybe the way he’s trying to force it to be understandable in a 2017 context. Suburbicon’s chief point seems to be that no one is innocent in this town, besides the children and the black family. But the neighbors’ initial “oh, you’re not the help?” racism toward the latter is so transparent and so quickly evaporates into naked hate that there’s no point to gradually indicting a town when its well of spirit might just as well be labeled “POISON.” At best, there’s no reason why these two stories — of backlash to integration and familial criminal conspiracy — should be told in tandem. (I’ve got it! Married To The Mob meets Ruby Bridges!) At worst, it’s highly inappropriate, offensive in its thoughtlessness, to juxtapose the realistic pain of a family being attacked by a racist mob with the stylized hijinks of proto-Fargo.
Piece by piece, Suburbicon misses the familiar depth of a Coen script; the characters may be wacky across the filmography, but the audience intuitively understands them through and beneath the ways they present. Think about Woody Harrelson’s bit part in No Country For Old Men. And don’t think for long. (He doesn’t have long.) You know that guy. Every character in Suburbicon is just a mass of whiteness, and their willingness to do wrong is connoted in their whiteness and their cartoonish American posturing. Damon is simply boring until he’s desperate. Julianne Moore is boxed in. Oscar Isaac briefly livens up the proceedings by monologuing about coincidence as the narrative fuel of opera, at which point the movie unabashedly becomes operatic.
The villainy and prejudice of the white characters is simply not as hidden by their manners as the film thinks. There is nothing to uncover here and therefore no reason for the film to exist, especially given that Clooney and Heslov (as you’d imagine) want the audience to see Suburbicon as a relevant, political statement. But if what you have on your hands is a fable, why spend two hours letting us know the fox can’t be trusted? If the myth of Ward Cleaver’s America hasn’t been debunked enough for you by this point, it’s not Ward Cleaver who deserves the scrutiny.
Editor’s Note: So, let’s do the podcast voice! Sacred Deer is good-good if you can stomach it. Put it this way: I did not want to see it again leaving the theater. A week later, I really want to. Suburbicon is bad-bad. I’d be angrier with it if it wasn’t also so lame.
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Be Reel is a movie reviewing & reappraising podcast hosted by Chance Solem-Pfeifer and Noah Ballard.
Each time out, we select three movies based around a genre and call up guests ranging from submarine captains to Oscar winners. Then, we rate the movies, weighing both technical quality and entertainment.
Noah and Chance are old friends who mostly respect each other’s opinions. Even though Chance is a fool and a traitor. Find their show presented at ThePlaylist.Net and follow them on Twitter for the latest on Noah’s literary agenting and Chance’s work in the Portland arts scene.