Arlington Road (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

There's no doubt that the subject matter tackled by Arlington Road is topical. Terrorism at home is a very real danger in this current climate of world uncertainty, and, arguably, a greater danger is posed to U.S. security by radical political groups within this country than by outside forces. By borrowing heavily from the images and events surrounding the Oklahoma City tragedy, Arlington Road postulates that there might be a huge underground conspiracy driving this sort of activity, and, if it isn't stopped, history will repeat itself. As long as there's a patsy to take the fall, there's no motivation to dig deeper.

Director Mark Pellington's problem isn't the premise, it's Ehren Kruger's script. Arlington Road is a badly constructed motion picture. The screenplay stretches the viewer's credulity far beyond the breaking point, asking us to accept dozens of absurd contrivances and coincidences. The more you think about it, the less sense Arlington Road makes. Added to that, Pellington (who made his feature debut with 1997's Going All the Way) has chosen to develop his film like a standard psycho-thriller, adhering to all of the connect-the-dots formulas of the genre. We have the unsuspecting hero, the seemingly kind neighbors with a dark secret, and the escalation of evidence that no one but the protagonist believes. Pellington's approach has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

Yet, despite the plodding, predictable way in which the plot develops, Arlington Road is not without a kernel of originality. The ending, which is by far the most noteworthy aspect of the entire picture, defies expectations and accomplishes the difficult task of surprising the viewer. In a better movie, the film's ultimate twist might have been labeled as "brilliant." Here, it's merely clever, and not good enough to redeem the 100 minutes of recycled garbage that precedes it. A finale like this deserves a stronger story.

Arlington Road introduces us to Professor Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges), who, along with his young son, Grant (Spencer Treat Clark), and his girlfriend, Brooke (Hope Davis), lives a quiet life in suburban Northern Virginia. Although he seems normal and well adjusted, Michael is having trouble coping with the recent death of his wife, an FBI agent who was killed in the line-of-duty during a botched anti-terrorism operation. A part of him still blames the agency and his wife's former partner, Whit Carver (Robert Gossett).

Enter the new neighbors: Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack), a wholesome couple who espouse family values. They have a son Grant's age, and, after Michael saves the boy's life following a fireworks accident, Oliver and Cheryl are in his debt. Michael begins to see more of them, but he is prone to paranoia, and, when a few facts about his new friends don't check out, he suspects that Oliver is up to no good. A wild leap of intuition leads him to believe that he may have discovered the tip of a terrorism iceberg.

In addition to a haphazard script and over-the-top direction, Arlington Road is marred by another significant error: the miscasting of one key role. As Michael Faraday, Jeff Bridges simply does not ring true. In the right role (The Fabulous Baker Boys, Starman, even King Kong), the actor can do a fabulous job, but, for whatever reason, he proves incapable of making Michael believable. This is too obviously a performance, and I was never able to accept the character as real. Bridges overacts every emotionally charged scene, and seems bored the rest of the time (the often-laughable paragraphs of dialogue he is forced to recite don't help). Instead of drawing the audience into the desperation of Michael's situation, Bridges forces us to watch from a calculated distance as he fumbles his way through a part he's clearly not comfortable with.

The rest of the cast is fine, although not superlative. Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack are suitably creepy. We know from the beginning that their white bread appearance is just a facade. Consequently, it's not much of a shock when the two begin to exhibit psychotic tendencies. There's not much meat to either role, but Robbins and Cusack get the most out of what they're given. Hope Davis, who opened eyes with luminous performances in The Daytrippers and Next Stop, Wonderland, is criminally underused in the "generic girlfriend" part.

It's hard to put my frustration about this film into words. Too often, otherwise promising scripts fall apart because the director and screenwriter can't come up with a compelling way to end a movie. Arlington Road has the opposite problem. With another rewrite or two, and perhaps a casting change, this movie might have been a top-notch thriller. As it is, however, its numerous weaknesses drag it down to the level of just another "psycho murderer on the loose" story. Given a chance, take a detour around Arlington Road.

Arlington Road (United States, 1999)

Director: Mark Pellington
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, Hope Davis, Robert Gossett
Screenplay: Ehren Kruger
Cinematography: Bobby Bukowski
Music: Angelo Badalamenti
U.S. Distributor: Screen Gems
Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 1999-07-09
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1