Within the narrative mess that is Suburbicon lies a telling story; one that reveals what secular culture thinks of family and community, ideas that have implications for Western culture and church culture alike.
(Some spoilers for Suburbicon are in this post).
In simple terms, George Clooney’s film, written by the Coen Brothers and starring Matt Damon, is about tranquility devolving into depraved chaos. Suburbicon is a lovely, idyllic neighborhood set in the perfect 1950s environment that never existed. It exhibits the forlorn way that many Americans (middle class white America, according to the film) look at the “good old days.” This is especially the case for the politically (and probably morally) conservative, a group that the film is specifically set against. And it’s this group that becomes unmasked through two barely connected events: a lethal home invasion and riots over integration.
Not so idyllic, is it? And that’s exactly the point. Clooney’s film is principally intended as a stinging indictment of The American Dream. The clunky handling of that theme aside, this is not an altogether wrongheaded idea. Current conservative Christian culture has an unfortunate tendency to romanticize the past, and overlook the rampant racism, materialism, and self-focus that has been either associated with or historically paired with The American Dream. But Suburbicon is not content with criticism. Its proposed solution is far more radical.
Despite featuring a star-studded cast (Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac in addition also star), the center of the film is Nicky, the son of the family. Cautionary tales and dystopia stories of many stripes frequently contain a moral center, sometimes a character with a lot of naivete. In the novel Brave New World, for example, this center is John, who grew up completely apart from the soma-addicted hedonistic society. While Nicky did not grow up apart from the depraved world he finds himself in, he does play the moral center role, and like John, begins from a place of ignorance. As the film progresses and his family slips into madness, it becomes clear that Nicky’s family is the least safe place he could possibly be.
There are no good options for him. The only virtuous relative he has is something of an imbecile (even if a well-meaning one), and the key influencers in the film keep reminding us that Nicky is supposed to be with his family unit. And so, at the film’s end, when the madness has become so ridiculous that it begins taking lives by the dozen, Nicky ultimately leaves, not in the care of a virtuous adult, not even in the care of a trusted authority, but by himself. The normative social order has fallen, the film seems to say; in the face of that disarray, independence is the answer.
It seems quite radical a notion that children ought to raise themselves. But the more broad idea of breaking free from traditional values (likely the theme the Coens had in mind) is one with increasing sway in secular Western culture. Individualist culture has increasingly become the driving force for our decision-making processes for the past 50 years, with no signs of a slowing trend. Not all elements of individualistic culture are evil. Feeling bound to the ideals of your community only works of that community has correct ideals, after all. But our culture has become so individualistic that many believe the problem is not with the ideals of certain kinds of communities, but with the very idea of community itself.
In many ways, this sort of thinking has slipped into cultural Christianity in the Western world. The oxymoronic phrase “I’m a Christian but I don’t go to church” can be heard coast to coast. “That’s just between them and God” is a frequent refrain. Even for those who do attend services, church marketing makes it clear that community is no longer our prime focus. Near my hometown, I used to pass a billboard for a church that sported an image of a man cutting his tie with a pair of scissors. “No tie necessary!” the sign boasted. I don’t remember the last time I wore a tie to church. But this exemplifies the focus of too many American churches: it’s not really necessary for them to be here, so how do we make it as comfortable as possible for them so that they come?
But the importance of community, both familial and not, is a Biblical emphasis. There’s a reason Paul and his fellow evangelists established local churches instead of only baptizing believers. Participation in these churches was a core part of Christian life, as passages in Acts, Hebrews, and several other books of Scripture remind us. A pre-requisite for serving in these churches in leadership positions was displaying a healthy community in one’s own home. Even Jesus, while criticizing his physical family, affirmed the community of the disciples, calling them his brothers and sisters. As is the case with many cultural movements, apparent independence from community is not a call for true liberty, but a recipe for disaster.
Suburbicon is not the cause of our culture’s misplaced trust in the self. Nor, do I suspect, will it do much greater harm; it has not been well reviewed and will likely slip from the American consciousness by time the next blockbuster hits the big screen. But it is a symptom of this particular aspect of our culture’s worldview, and reminds us just how far off track that misplaced trust can take us.
Logan Judy is a Christian blogger and science fiction author with a Batman complex. At A Clear Lens, he focuses on worldview analysis and pop culture, as well as co-hosting the A Clear Lens Podcast. In addition to his work on the ACL website and podcast, he is also the founder of Cross Culture, the host of the Cross Culture Podcast, and the author of three novels. He tweets @loganrjudy about writing, apologetics, entertainment, parenting, and Batman.