“Dark Suburbia”: The American Dream Gone Wrong in Film

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by Hazel Anna Rogers for the Carl Kruse Blog

In the 90s, it seemed that America had a keen fascination with the dilapidation of the (previously believed to be) ‘utopian’ suburban lifestyle. Not that it hadn’t had such thoughts before, but, in the realm of screen, the decay and disrepair at the heart of the blissfully naïve American nuclear family came to stark prominence in the 1990s, which found such lifestyles portrayed in a cold, nightmarish fashion with an overabundance of strangely dream-like images and disjointed dialogue. Most of the films I’m referring to are sort-of indie flicks, perhaps slightly off the radar, but many were popular enough to be remembered today. Now, however, we come to a dilemma: what is the specific genre of these films? The thing is, the genre ‘black comedy’ gets thrown at these sorts of movies a lot, but I don’t think that’s what they are. ‘Black comedy’, to me, might entail such films as Little Miss Sunshine, In Bruges, Calvary, Four Lions…I don’t know, stuff like that, where bad shit happens but it’s pretty funny because the dialogue is absurd and occasionally light-hearted, even in the midst of some pretty morbid stuff. But the films that I will be talking about often really don’t hit the ‘funny’ mark, even if they’ve tried to. They’re frequently a bit darker than that, and might make you laugh in a kind of surprised fashion, but not necessarily in a ‘ha ha’ way, if you catch my drift. These films are also oftentimes pretty uncomfortable, because you can perhaps relate to some of the characters but then some of the characters are also pretty damned unsavoury and reveal the worst of human nature, the human nature that we normally pretend doesn’t really exist because it would be awful to think that these kinds of people live among us.

I gotta give it to them – some of these films are pretty bold. They address taboos that we don’t normally bring up, except in mere fleeting jest. They show the American Dream to be a phony falsity that serves only as a poster cover for the deep unhappiness of living a life unsatisfactory.

So. What shall we call this genre? Maybe ‘Dark Suburbia’? We’ll use that for now as I illustrate some prominent examples from my recently coined filmic genre.

I will take American Beauty, Sam Mendes’ 1999 box office hit, as one of the more successful and enjoyable examples of ‘dark suburbia’, for the primary reason that it’s actually very funny. Lester Burnham, played by a young, charismatic Kevin Spacey (I am indeed well aware of the accusation towards him, but we are speaking in terms of this film) lives a ‘perfect’ life, with his estate-agent wife (Annette Benning), his goth daughter (Thora Birch), and a good, well-paying job. That is, until he realises he isn’t very happy. Then comes the chaos.


Carl Kruse Tech Blog - image of American Beauty


The beauty and success of this film is in its joy, for despite all of the calamity and disputes that ensue from Lester’s newfound ‘freedom’ of life, what we witness is a man deciding to make a change, and to become a better, happier man. Yes, he is infatuated with a young girl – Angela, played wonderfully by a delightful Mena Suvari – but we discover that Angela is merely the catalyst for a greater change. Lester comes to the realisation that happiness is a thing that can only be found with autonomy, and cannot be defined by the long-revered American Dream of capitalism, nuclear family life, and stability. It is still one of my favourite films.

For a less pleasurable example of ‘dark suburbia’, let us look to a few of Todd Solondz features: first of all, Happiness, released in 1998. In this film, we follow the lives of three sisters and the men who feature in each of their lives; for this film is, mostly, about beastly men, and maybe a little about unsatisfied women.

A large portion of the film is dedicated to the husband of one of the sisters (the eldest, Trish), a Bill Maplewood, whom we first meet as a disinterested therapist of some description, but soon discover to be a rampant paedophile, who buys kids’ magazines at the store to jack off in his car to. We see Bill rapidly become infatuated with one of his brothers’ school friends, Johnny Grasso, whom we find out is gay (thanks to the depressed musings of his father to Bill). Bill proceeds to sexually assault the boy and follows this assault with yet another assault on a boy whom his son, Timmy, reveals to him has been left alone for a week at home.

So, yes, this is all very depraved and very haunting and all the rest of it…but it’s the way that Bill’s storyline is FRAMED that is so interesting, and atypical, I would say, of ‘dark suburbia’ (I’m getting cocky with this whole genre thing, I know). When we meet Bill in his office, he is listening to the sexually frustrated ramblings of Allan Mellencamp, played in a delightfully piggy manner by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, bless his soul. A short while into Allen’s vernacular, which involves him admitting that he wishes to fuck his neighbour (who is one of the aforementioned three sisters) so hard that cum comes out of her mouth (tasteful, very tasteful), we are introduced to Bill’s internal monologue, which starts like this: ‘gallon of skimmed milk…dozen eggs…one of those disposable cans for the weekend…I can stop at the 7 11 on the way home…ahh I gotta get the dry cleaning for Trish…I’m gonna check Billy’s homework…” and so on. And, thus, we are introduced to Bill, the regular family man, with a regular job, a wife, and a kid; an honest man, if you will, who completes chores for his wife after work, and thinks about his family when he’s at work, and all that. Except…he’s a paedophile. This is the epitome of the breakdown of the nuclear family; within the walls of a seemingly peaceful, Christian household, we find evil rotting at the core, and no one is any the wiser of it.

I laughed a little during this film, mostly for the absurdity of it. Its characters are at once relatable – we could very well meet them at a café, on the sidewalk, at a checkout – and yet are somehow all teeming with the same nasty bugs of depression, obsession, dissatisfaction, and loneliness.

For our last film of discussion, I’d like to bring up David Fincher’s 1999 flick Fight Club. Though one might tend to group this film into the genres of action, thriller, dystopia, and the like, I think it reflects similar traits to the other ‘dark suburbia’ titles in this list. In essence, this is a film about a man who hates his white-collar job, hates the lure of consumerism, and desires to attain some kind of ‘enlightenment’ outside the trappings of the regular value systems and institutions of wider society. So, he sets up a ‘Fight Club’ with his newfound buddy, soap salesman Tyler Durden (who’s a figment of his imagination, but that isn’t too important in this context), where people fist-fight consensually for fun. A lot else happens, but basically this film is about a guy who wants to break free from ‘the system’ – boring office jobs to make money to buy beautiful things with, regular relationships and family and kids, and societally accepted pastimes.

I hated this film. Maybe it’s because I have heard this particular strain of ‘breaking free from the system’ all too often, as it achieved peak popularity during my late teenage years and continues to thrive in certain circles, but I found this film to be cringeworthy and try-hard, at best. But it does fit my ‘dark suburbia’ genre, and for that reason, I think it interesting to include; its dialogue is jarring and ‘unreal’, and it involves all of the tell-tale internal sentiments of the genre.

I’d sort of like to continue this discussion. There are more films to discuss, and more to discuss of the genre itself, and of the reasoning behind its apparition during the decade of the 1990s (though particularly towards its end…equally interesting). But I think I would like to end on this question, which I partner asked me recently: why are 90s films (especially those of this genre) so very distinguishable? We could even put television into the mix, for what is David Lynch’s Twin Peaks except a perfect example of the quaint American Dream gone wrong?

Hmm. I shall think further on this, and get back to you in due course.

This Carl Kruse Blog homepage is at https://carlrkuse.at
Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Hazel include Film Scenes I Wish I had Never Seen, An Appreciation of the Humble Map, and Paper Books, Ebook Dreams.
Carl Kruse is also on Stage32.

Author: Carl Kruse

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