Clooney charms Venice despite show of anger
Affable, handsome George Clooney was all charm at the Venice Film Festival yesterday - but don't be fooled. The actor says his latest directorial effort, Suburbicon, is an angry movie for an angry country - his own. It's a twisted tale of darkness at the heart of the American dream.
"A lot of us are angry - angry at ourselves, angry at the way that the country is going, angry at the way the world is going," Clooney told reporters in Venice, where Suburbicon is competing for the festival's Golden Lion prize.
"It's probably the angriest I have ever seen the country, and I lived through the Watergate period of time. There is a dark cloud hanging over our country right now."
America's divisions give an unnerving timeliness to Suburbicon. The satirical film noir stars Matt Damon and Julianne Moore as residents of a seemingly idyllic - and all-white - 1950s suburban community that erupts in anger when a black family moves in. It fuses a script by the Coen brothers with a narrative about racial divisions inspired - in a negative way - by Donald Trump's presidential campaign.
"I was watching a lot of speeches on the campaign trail about building fences and scapegoating minorities," Clooney said.
That set Clooney and writing-producing partner Grant Heslov to thinking about other points in US history when forces of division were in the ascendant. They remembered 1957 events in Levittown, Pennsylvania, a model community where white residents rioted after the arrival of a black family. They fused that idea to an unproduced script by Joel and Ethan Coen about a similar white-picket-fence community where a crime goes horribly wrong in farcically bloody ways.
The images of white rage in the movie feel unnervingly contemporary, recalling last month's rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia.
"Unfortunately, these are issues that are never out of vogue in our country," Clooney said ahead of the film's red carpet premiere. "We are still trying to exorcise these problems. We've still got a lot of work to do from our original sin of slavery and racism."
On one level, Suburbicon is a comedy, in which the best-laid plans of Damon's scheming corporate executive go bloodily astray. Damon and Moore practically explode with suburban repression, and there's a delicious turn by Oscar Isaac as a prying insurance investigator.
Yesterday was Damon's second time on the Venice red carpet this festival. He also stars in Alexander Payne's Downsizing, in which - as so often - he portrays a likeable everyman. But Damon also can play the psychopath, as he demonstrated in The Talented Mr Ripley. In Suburbicon, he's a bland suburbanite who becomes a monster.
"I don't really get to play the bad guy a lot, but I do get a nice range of roles," Damon said. He recalled Payne telling him: "I like you because you don't look like a movie star."
"And I know exactly what he meant," Damon added. "I look kind of like an average American person, so I think directors get to have fun playing with different variations of what that might mean."
For all the bloody fun in Suburbicon, the social concerns Clooney displayed in previous films he directed - including Good Night, and Good Luck and The Ides of March - are never far from the surface.
The Clooney Foundation he runs with his wife, human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, gave $1m in the wake of Charlottesville to the Southern Poverty Law Centre to combat hate groups.
Clooney said he was anxious that the movie not be a polemic or "a civics lesson".
"We wanted it to be funny, we wanted it to be mean," he added. "But it is certainly angry, and it got angrier as we were shooting."