Arlington Road (1999)
Directed by Mark Pellington
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins, Hope Davis, Joan Cusack, Robert Gossett, Spencer Treat Clark, Mason Gamble.
1999 117 minutes
Rated: (for violence and profanity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, July 10, 1999.
"Arlington Road," directed by Mark Pellington, is one of the most pulse-pounding paranoia thrillers I have seen, a horrifying, tautly-paced film dealing with a person who begins to suspect menacingly dark undertones in a seemingly joyous place. Although the theatrical trailer for the film unfairly gives away many of its secrets (shame on the studio, Screen Gems!), you might just be surprised about how unpredictable much of it remains, right up until merely moments before the developments occur.
Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) is a grieving father of a 9-year-old son, Grant (Spencer Treat Clark), whose beloved wife, part of the feds, was killed in a case gone awry a year or two before. A professor for global terrorism, a subject he is truly and passionately intrigued and outraged by, at George Washington University, Michael has begun the process of repairing his broken-up life, and has gotten a nice girlfriend, Brooke (Hope Davis), who cares for him but realizes she will never be able to measure up to his late wife. One day while driving home in his suburban neighborhood, Michael comes across a young boy (Mason Gamble) staggering along in the middle of the road, one of his arms severely charred up from a freak firecracker accident. Rushing him to the hospital, Michael is met with much gratitude from the boy's parents, Oliver (Tim Robbins) and Cheryl Lang (Joan Cusack), whom Michael learns live right across the street from him. As Grant begins to come out of his shell when he becomes best friends with the Lang's son, Michael grows increasingly jealous and begins to suspect something fishy is going on when he finds Oliver's blueprints of an office building, when he says it is for a mall he is currently constructing. Due to the misfortune of his own wife, Michael isn't taking any chances, and soon has learned that Oliver Lang, which he changed his name to over fifteen years ago, was arrested for planting a bomb in a building when he was a teenager. To give away anymore would not be right, for there are many unexpected occurrences within the film's 117-minute running time that left me chilled right to the bone.
In its story arc, "Arlington Road" ultimately follows the tried-and-true, familiar pattern of many a thrillers. You know that the people around Michael will, at first, not buy into his serious suspicions, and that he will research the Lang's and discover more shocking secrets about them, and that there will be some sort of confrontation in the latter half. What you don't usually find in this type of thriller, however, is such a sympathetically written protagonist, and such a refreshingly high amount of energy that rarely ever lets up, as it leads you right to its devastating conclusion, which is such a decidedly downbeat but incalculable change of pace from the usual humdrum summer movies.
Thanks to the directing precision of Pellington (who fares much better here than in his previous film, 1997's "Going All the Way"); the tense, unequivocal screenplay by Ehren Krueger; the brooding cinematography by Bobby Bukowski, who really succeeds in portraying a supposedly peaceful suburban neighborhood in an obscure, threatening light; and the memorable, offbeat music score by David Lynch-regular Angelo Badalamenti, "Arlington Road" is an especially effective film that also turns out to be rather thought-provoking. In one of Faraday's college classes, he mentions that "people always want to blame one certain person just so that they can feel better," and this truthful statement looms eerily over the denouement. The characters of Michael and Brooke are also written intelligently enough so that when we realize that they are potentially being put into danger, their fates meant much more to me than the usual "thriller."
Jeff Bridges, a highly underrated actor who doesn't get as much notice as he should, probably because of some of his questionable film choices, is magnificent here, adding an appropriate mixture to his personality of love (for his son), depression (the death of his wife), and paranoia (of Oliver Lang). Bridges is asked to really push himself over the deep end in several scenes in his frustration to get others to realize what he firmly knows about the Lang's, and he is up to every challenge that comes his way.
Hope Davis, a remarkable, relatively new actress who has wowed me with the likes of the indie films, 1997's "The Daytippers" and "The Myth of Fingerprints," and 1998's "Next Stop Wonderland," is the film's performance standout. Her character of Brooke, who met Michael as a grad student at the university, is a realistic, three-dimensional creation because she loves Michael, but doesn't feel that she is being returned that emotion, and, in the beginning, can't understand why Michael is going to such great lengths to uncover criminals who very likely are innocent people. A startling twist occurs with her character midway through, which I would rather walk on sharp pins than give away, but it must be said that I was more filled with conflicting emotions of shock and disappointment than I have been in a very long time at the movies.
As the Lang's, Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack are perfectly cast. Robbins appears threatening even when he is acting like a happy-go-lucky family man, while Cusack, usually a comedic actress, is downright creepy as the too-good-to-be-true Cheryl. After seeing Cusack in this role, which is so convincingly portrayed, I fear I might have a little difficulty in the future deciphering Joan from Cheryl. Together, Oliver and Cheryl's relationship reminded me a great deal of the off-kilter 1989 horror satire, "Parents," in which a young boy suspects his buoyant parents are actually cannibals who murder people and perform sadistic rituals late at night while he's sleeping.
It's rare in today's times to find a motion picture that still can alternately surprise you, get you deeply involved in the characters, and put you right on the edge of you seat, but that is exactly what "Arlington Road" has done. It should be noted that this film has been delayed for several months, first to acquire a stronger release date, then to avoid any controversy due to the Columbine school shooting, but it was definately worth the wait. Aside from a few minor, questionable plot gaps, "Arlington Road" is a superb film dealing with paranoia that is not easily forgotten, and may even force you to question the characters of the people in your own life. Who knows what lurks right below the surface?
©1999 by Dustin Putman