December 3, 2008

11 Great suburban unrest films

With the impending release of Revolutionary Road, the new Sam Mendes joint about how - get this - not everyone in 1950s suburban America was happy with their cookie-cutter lives, I got to thinking about suburban unrest in films. Well, perhaps "got to thinking" is the wrong term, since I am always thinking about it. My boyfriend always mocks my obsession with these films, but I can't help it, since it hits so close to home. I come from an almost laughably stereotypical suburb where everyone filled their emotional voids with money and pushed their unfulfilled dreams onto their kids. To me, there can never be enough films that pull back this perfect facade. Here's a sampling of films that I feel explore this theme exceptionally well (in rough chronological order of release).

1. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
This was Hitchcock's favorite film of his own, because, as he said, it brought murder "back into the home, where it rightfully belongs." Murder in a creepy motel is all fine and good, or on an exotic adventure, but Hitch gets it: it's creepier in your own house. Especially when you suspect that your own flesh and blood (in this case, a favorite uncle) is a widow killer! Some critics call this Hitchcock's most "American" film, because it is rooted in the traditional American paranoia of someone infiltrating and destructing our perfect lives.

2. Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Let's take a trip in the way-back machine, to when all this business started. Suburbs as they are now known started cropping up at the end of WWII, so this film would have been one of the earliest to explore the idea that these perfect communities do not exclusively contain perfect people living perfect lives. This film was also revolutionary in putting forth the argument that teenagers actually have real problems. Every time I hear James Dean yell "You're tearing me apart!" to his parents in this film, it gives me chills.

3. All That Heaven Allows (1955) and

4. Far From Heaven (2002)
I'm mentioning these together because the second is an homage to/reimagining of the first. It basically takes the concept further, asking what if the forbidden love had not been between the housewife and the younger man, but the housewife and a black man? And oh, her husband is gay too? Both films are heartbreaking explorations of how the suburban ideal keeps people from being themselves - and being with those they truly love.

5. The Graduate (1967)
Okay, yes, we've all heard of The Graduate (I hope?!). Benjamin is burnt out - he can't be a slave to his parents' expectations anymore. Mrs. Robinson is just as unsatisfied as he is with the "plastic" (yuk yuk) life they lead. So they turn to the short-term solution of sex. Everyone wants to escape, but nobody really gets anywhere.

6. Blue Velvet (1986)
While I can't exactly say that I like this film in the traditional sense of the word, it's definitely unique and compelling. David Lynch has painted a surreal universe where you are constantly asking which is freakier: Dennis Hopper huffing gas and committing graphic acts of sexual violence, or the chipper and fake everyday people of Lumberton. Lynch subtly implies that there's twisted stuff going on behind every closed door in the burbs.

7. The Ice Storm (1997)
Set in the 1970s during a time of changing values, this film tells the tale of neighboring families getting increasingly intertwined. The ensemble cast is amazing, but Joan Allen stands out in her role of the housewife who just can't stand by and watch her husband cheat and her anymore. Her gradual build towards an outburst can be seen as representative of suburban repression everywhere.

8.The Truman Show (1998) and
9. Hot Fuzz (2007)
I mention these together because, though they diverge wildly in style and content, they are both riffs on a much more literal interpretation of the suburban lie: that it is an actual conspiracy. Whether those nice neighbors are actually members of a violent gang or actors interacting with you for the pleasure of a worldwide viewing audience, the burbs are certainly not what they seem.

10. American Beauty (1999)
Duh. Dad's having a midlife crisis, Mom's having an affair, daughter's having a whirlwind romance with a dangerous stranger, the dangerous stranger's parents don't speak, etc. It's not new or groundbreaking territory by any means, but it's done well and with a snarky edge.

11. Little Children (2006)
Oh, Little Children. You are challenging, you are painful, you are real. It's incredible that Todd Field managed to elicit sympathy for a bunch of adulterers and even a child molester. It's even more incredible that parts of this movie are actually funny.

As a disclaimer, I am aware that there are certain things that would qualify for this list, but I have not seen them. They include, but are not limited to: Edward Scissorhands, The Virgin Suicides, and countless classic zombie or horror films that I don't have the nerves and/or stomach for. Kindly do not freak out at me for this.

What are you favorite films of this genre?


Scott Nye said...

Well...The Virgin Suicides. It actually acknowledges that these people have good things happen to them too, which makes it all the worse when the bad shit starts.

Michael said...

All the movie you're taking about are great... I would add DONNIE DARKO, ARLINGTON ROAD and the John Hughes movies !

MG Design said...

Great ideas, I am actually doing a research project based on suburban design. I wanted to look at suburban movies for a reprsentation & to draw a conclusion from these movies. I would add "Pleasantville" to the list too.