"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?
Copyright © 2000 Dustin Putman