Posts Tagged ‘Noah Jupe’

As you may have noticed, it’s not very often that a film gets by me, especially one of the horror or SF persuasion. I can be a little bit obsessive about these things (although, to be fair, it’s been nearly ten years since one of my treks to the out-of-town multiplex – and if memory serves, those little jaunts were usually to see something involving Jason Statham and/or Sylvester Stallone, anyway). And yet: a bit more than four years ago, friends and colleagues were talking about what a great time they’d had watching John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place, and I gave it a miss. (When people recommended A Quiet Place to someone in my earshot, I seem to recall I made a point of counter-recommending Ghost Stories instead.) The last time but one I flew to Moscow (it was 2018, it was a different world – at least, it seemed different, anyway), A Quiet Place was available to watch as one of the in-flight movies. Did I watch it? I did not. (I spent the flight getting stuck into Iain Banks’ The Bridge, if you must know.)

Why was this? Aha! Well, there’s the story: my landlady at the time was, and there’s no easy way of putting this, a Mail reader (both the Daily and Sunday variants) and she would pass the cultural supplement over to me once she’d finished with it. And the film critic in said pestilential weekend rag led me to understand that if I actually went to see A Quiet Place, it was a dead cert that a slightly ridiculous phobia that I am afflicted with would be very severely triggered. So I gave the film a miss. Quite why I did so, considering that in the past I generally stiffened the sinew, manned up, and went along anyway, even when I knew my particular terror button was going to be pressed, I don’t know: maybe I’m getting even more craven as I grow older. (There’s still an episode of Black Mirror I haven’t been able to watch to the end, for the same reason.)

It turns out I needn’t have worried. Former Next Desk Colleague Now Manager (At A Different Establishment) suffers from the same phobia that I do – what do I go with here, ‘it’s a small world sometimes’ or ‘we’re just so well-matched’? – and he assured me that the monsters in A Quiet Place were not going to push my buttons. So, pausing only to contemplate the fact that not even the film reviews in the Mail on Sunday are to be remotely trusted, I caught A Quiet Place the next time it came on the telly.

A Quiet Place opens with scenes that have become a staple of a certain kind of horror film: the urban environment in the process of decay, something awful having overtaken civilisation. Nature is just starting the process of reclaiming everything that people have left behind, although a caption indicates that whatever is happening has only been doing so for about three months. And it seems as though not everybody is dead: the Abbott family (played by Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Noah Jupe, Milicent Simmonds and Cade Woodward) are in the process of resupplying themselves from an abandoned store – but doing so (and a theme will develop from hereon in) very, very quietly. You may ask yourself ‘What, come to think of it, is the quiet place in A Quiet Place?’, and the answer is, of course, everywhere the characters go. Clues here and there do suggest the apocalypse that has happened is, in some respect, sonic, but the truth is not revealed for a little while.

This is not really a spoiler, but: the youngest Abbott has availed himself of an electronic toy he wants to take home with him, but this is vetoed (via sign language) by his parents, on the grounds of excessive volume. Unbeknownst to them, his sister gives it back to him with the batteries taken out, and unbeknownst to her, he puts the batteries back in. On the way home, as he trails behind the rest of the group, there is a sudden blast of sound.  Almost at once, something rather horrible scuttles through the woods at astonishing speed and snatches the child away.

Killing off a toddler right at the start of your movie is a pretty ballsy move, as it’s not the kind of thing audiences like: infant mortality tends to be reserved for more sentimental, naturalistic dramas, or proper hard-core horror films (and while I hate to split hairs when it comes to genre, I think A Quiet Place is much more a piece of apocalyptic SF than it is a genuine horror film). Nevertheless, it sets the tone for the piece and establishes the central question of it – namely, can the senior Abbotts keep their children safe in these rather trying circumstances? What are they prepared to do to ensure that happens?

The film does a sound job of exploring these questions (sorry, genuinely no pun intended), and puts together some very proficient sequences in the course of doing so. It was only when I finally sat down to watch A Quiet Place that I fully appreciated just how big a cultural footprint the film had left – despite never having seen it or its sequel, I realised I was more or less familiar with not just the premise of the movie, but also most of the plot points and set-pieces involved (the bit with the nail, the bit with the bath-tub). Perhaps this is why this is one of those films which seems to have impressed everyone else much more than me. I can see the quality and proficiency of the piece, but I’m just not inclined to praise it in the same way as a lot of other people.

Then again, I suppose there are some films where you can know the rough outline of the story going in and still enjoy yourselves, there being other incidental pleasures like dialogue to divert you. As I said when I wrote about One Million Years BC, making a film without any dialogue – not even as intertitles – really does have an impact on your ability to tell a sophisticated, complex story: there’s only so much you can do just by using visual storytelling. What Krasinski manages is impressive, but for me much of the pleasure of the film came from its world-building, the obvious thought that had gone into working out how the family would survive without making any noise. (I am tempted to speculate rather caddishly on how Mr and Mrs Abbott managed to conceive in total silence the child which is born towards the end of the movie but that really would be a tacky line of thought.) Once the plot starts to speed up in the final third, I thought it became rather less interesting.

But it’s a good movie for what it is – it knows what it wants to be about and ends up being about that, the direction and performances are good, and if the monsters themselves somehow don’t seem terribly original, that’s not necessarily a terminal problem for the film – slimy black things with big teeth and no eyes have practically become an archetype, post-H.R. Giger. I’m not sure that being better than other similar films automatically means that this is a great film, even though this is the only reason I can figure out for the acclaim A Quiet Place has received. Then again, perhaps this is one of those ‘you had to be there at the time’-type deals. Sadly, of course, I was not there at the time; I was too busy paying attention to the Mail on Sunday. This was obviously a mistake. A life lesson for us all there.

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Yet more proof, perhaps, that in Hollywood nobody knows anything. The various tribes of American cinema (in the form of George Clooney, his regular collaborator Grant Heslov, and the Coen brothers) have come together, and the resulting script has been filmed as Suburbicon, with Matt Damon and Julianne Moore in the leading roles. With such a gallimaufry of talent both in front of and behind the camera, you would confidently expect the movie to be both a popular smash and a contender for critical recognition too.

And yet, of course, things have not quite turned out that way. Apparently this is the least financially successful film of Matt Damon’s career, a genuine bomb at the box office, and not exactly loved by people who comment on films for a living, either. The natural question to ask is: what went wrong with Suburbicon?

The movie is set in the late 1950s in Suburbicon itself, which is a model community just entering its second decade of existence. It advertises itself as a virtually perfect place to live, a paradise of white picket fences and social harmony. However, the town is rocked by a series of unexpected events – the arrival of its first African-American family, and a brutal murder.

This occurs one night when thugs break into the home of mild-mannered local businessman Gardner Lodge (Damon) and take him, his wife Rose (Julianne Moore), her sister Margaret (Moore again), and his son Nicky (Noah Jupe) prisoner. The family are drugged into unconsciousness, and when they awake it is clear that Lodge’s wife is not going to recover.

In the aftermath of the killing, Lodge and Margaret inform Nicky that she will be staying with them while everyone gets over the traumatic events which have just taken place. Nicky is a little unsure of what to make of it all, and his concerns become extreme when he is taken to the police station so Lodge and Margaret can view a line-up of suspects – only for them to confidently assert that the killers are not present, when they very plainly are…

The fact that the Coens are co-credited with Clooney and Heslov on the script for Suburbicon inevitably gives the impression that the four of them spent some time recently round at George’s place, possibly having a barbecue while they tossed ideas for the story back and forth. This is another one of those things which is not as you might expect, for apparently Suburbicon is based on a script they wrote over thirty years ago and then put to one side.

One wonders why, for this movie still has a certain Coeniness about it – saying that Clooney is attempting a pastiche of their style is probably overstating it, but it has that kind of slightly off-kilter quality that many of their films possess, as well as the way in which a thriller plotline is combined with the blackest of comedy.

Still, you can’t help wondering which bits of the story are original Coen, and which were inserted by Clooney and Heslov. I say ‘original’, but this would still have been an obvious pastiche even if the brothers had stuck with it – there are all kinds of subtle references to the kind of dark suspense stories that people like Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith were telling half a century ago. The notion of something very unpleasant incubating behind the all-American facade of small town life inevitably recalls Blue Velvet, too.

One thing you can certainly say about Suburbicon is that the plotting of the main story is up to scratch, in its closing stages at least. The film threatens to become a kind of black farce as the bodies pile up, but this never feels forced or contrived. The performances are also strong – Noah Jupe is particularly good as Nicky, who’s the viewpoint character for much of the movie. I’m not entirely sure why it was necessary for Julianne Moore to play both sisters, but she is customarily good, as is Damon. There’s an impressive appearance, in what’s really little more than an extended cameo, from Oscar Isaac – an able young actor who might do quite well for himself if he could only find a lead role in a high-profile franchise.

Much of Suburbicon is clever and inventive and very well made, and yet I can still understand why this film has failed to find an audience: it left something of a sour taste in my mouth as well, despite all its positive elements. I think this is mainly because the B-story of the film represents a serious tonal misjudgement – if I had to bet money on it, I would say this was the main addition to the script made by Clooney and Heslov.

It concerns the Mayers, the first African-Americans in Suburbicon, and their treatment by the rest of the town. This is almost cartoonishly ghastly, with mobs assembling outside their house every night to jeer and shout abuse, the town council paying to have high fences built around their property, local shops basically refusing to serve them, and so on. Now, I am sure that this sort of thing really happened in America in the late 50s, and I am by no means saying that it should not be depicted and reflected upon in films set in this period. But I’m not sure juxtaposing scenes of naturalistic drama about appalling racial abuse with a blackly comic suspense thriller entertainment really serves either project especially well.

When coupled to a few loaded references to how ‘diverse’ Suburbicon is – it contains white families from places as far apart as Ohio and New York! – you’re forced to conclude that Clooney’s thesis isn’t just that nasty things happen under the surface of suburbia, it’s that nasty things happen as a result of a society being insufficiently diverse – not just racism, but murder. For me that’s a big stretch, not least because there’s nothing in the film to support the notion. (Quite why some apparently normal characters should develop into such sociopathic murderers is not a question which the film answers, but that’s a possible flaw in the script, nothing more.)

I have a lot of time for George Clooney and generally find myself in agreement with many of the currently unfashionable ideas he often attempts to smuggle into his films, as both an actor and director. But on this occasion he just seems to be trying too hard to make a rather suspect point. As the blackest of comic suspense thrillers, there was a lot about Suburbicon that I admired and enjoyed, but as an attempt to make some kind of social commentary about America, either now or in the 1950s, it badly misfires. Still just about worth watching, I would say, even if it’s not the film it wants to be or the one you might be hoping for.

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