Screenplay : Ehren Kruger
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1999
Stars : Jeff Bridges (Michael Faraday), Tim Robbins (Oliver Lang), Joan Cusack (Cheryl Lang), Hope Davis (Brooke Wolfe), Robert Gossett (Whit Carver), Mason Gamble (Brady Lang), Spencer Treat Clark (Grant Faraday), Stanley Anderson (Dr. Archer Scobee)
Referring to extremist terrorist groups, one character in the new paranoia thriller "Arlington Road" notes, "It seems like they got one everywhere."
A simple line of a dialogue, yet it somehow manages to encapsulate one of the major fears in America at the end of the 20th century. Much has been written about how different societies deal with violence and war, and it has been noted by scholars that people who grow up in war-torn countries simply accept fear, terrorism, and constant violence as a way of life. In America, where a war has not been fought in over 130 years, violence in the heartland is unsettling and, more importantly, unexpected. After the Columbine massacre, the first thing people noted was its location: an upscale, middle-class suburb of good people. What do people always say when they find out their neighbor was a serial killer? "He was so quiet. He seemed so normal."
This is the fear on which "Arlington Road" plays. It imagines great, extremist right-wing conspiracy groups living right under our noses in sunny suburbia, throwing barbecues in the backyard and inviting the unsuspecting neighbors over for candle-lit dinners and polite chats about politics. While not an entirely novel idea ("Rosemary's Baby" did the same thing, except it was witches instead of terrorists living next door), the movie plays off this basic paranoia, suggesting that, no matter how friendly they are, your neighbors are and always will be strangers.
Jeff Bridges stars as Michael Faraday, a recently widowed history professor at George Washington University and father of a nine-year-old boy (Spencer Treat Clark). He teaches a class in American terrorism, which explains why he becomes so paranoid and curious about his across-the-street neighbors, the seemingly normal Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack).
Although they start off as friends, Michael begins to suspect that something is deeply wrong in the Lang household when Oliver tells him he's working on blueprints for a mall, when Michael suspects they are blueprints for an office building. "Why would he lie?" is the question that gets it all started. A few phone calls and a little prying later, Michael finds out that Oliver has changed his name at least once and that he has a history to hide. Michael tries to convince his girlfriend, Brooke (Hope Davis), but because this is a paranoid thriller, no one believes him until it's almost too late.
The movie incorporates a number of recent terrorist incidents in slightly fictionalized form; thus, the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City becomes the bombing of a federal building in St. Louis, and Timothy McVeigh, the "lone bomber," becomes an electrician named Scobee. The movie uses that scenario more than any other to underlie its basic message, one that Oliver Stone would be proud of: We are basically deluding ourselves when we believe that only lone crazies are responsible for such atrocities.
Written by Ehren Kruger and directed with lots of razzle-dazzle by Mark Pellington, "Arlington Road" moves along at a brisk clip. The movie never sags in its pace, only in some of its logic and oh-so-coincidental situations. If you get caught up in the fury of the movie's momentum, you won't question some of its bigger stretches until you're leaving the theater. But, even then, the movie delivers a shocking, completely un-Hollywood twist ending that might stun you into forgetting some of the script's basic gaps in logic. The ending is a killer, but it relies on a great deal of unrealistic foresight and timing by the movie's characters that is questionable, if not downright ludicrous.
Nevertheless, Pellington keeps the tension level high, even when it's patently clear early on that Robbins' character is a terrorist. The suspense isn't so much about who he is, but what he's about to do. Pellington also throws in some neat, creepy touches, such as the almost surrealistic opening sequence that involves Michael rescuing Oliver's son, Brady (Grant Faraday), after an accident involving firecrackers, and a scene where Michael wants to borrow the phone at Oliver's house, and encounters his neighbor's two daughters who look like they belong in "The Village of the Damned."
Bridges and Robbins, two of America's finest actors, carry the movie, the former exuding tons of hysterical paranoia (in a few scenes, it's almost too much), while the latter keeps it cool and icy. This is a rare villainous role for Robbins, and he makes great use of his tall, lean physique; he towers over everyone he comes into contact with, but still manages to maintain that deceptively boyish face. The only time his performance rankles is when he tries to be too conventionally evil during the climax.
However, the creepiest of all is Joan Cusack as Oliver's wife. Cusack has always excelled at playing oddball characters, whether that be the girl in the neckbrace in "Sixteen Candles" (1984) or Robin Williams' kooky mechanical sister in "Toys" (1992). Here, she uses her slightly off-key charm for sinister means, smiling a fake, almost plastic smile that just oozes treachery. And, it is in that smile, more than in the movie's more obvious moments, that we can see that underlying fear the movie wants so desperately to underscore: We are never as safe as we think we are.
©1999 James Kendrick