Arlington Road. 1999. Directed by Mark Pellington. Screenplay by Ehren Kruger.
Starring Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, Hope Davis, Robert Gossett, Mason Gamble, Spencer Treat Clark, Stanley Anderson, Viviane Vives, Lee Stringer, Darryl Cox, & Loyd Catlett. Screen Gems/Lakeshore Entertainment/Arlington Road Productions Corporation/Gorai & Samuelson Productions.
Rated R. 117 minutes.
There are certain movies re: terrorism which, after the horrific events of September 11th, 2001, really begin to take on heavier meaning than before. Even more so now as people seem needlessly frightened here in North America over so many refugees coming here. The paranoia of these terrorism-fueled thrillers makes for great stomping ground to play out a drama concerning who is or who isn’t a terrorist.
Arlington Road is interesting because nowadays you’d probably see the Tim Robbins character played by someone Middle Eastern, casting immigrants and those outside the North American culture as terrorists, or sympathizers. However, here’s Robbins playing a guy who may or may not be a terrorist (at least we’re unsure for a little while) – the white guy next door. And so this movie came along just a couple years before everybody starting assuming all terrorists have brown skin. It’s refreshing, honestly. Mark Pellington directs a script by Ehren Kruger that’s filled with mindbending sequences, as we rush along on the coat tails of Bridges, whose characters is beyond determined to figure out the truth about his new, subtly suspicious neighbour. Filmed well from a solid screenplay, Arlington Road is a mystery-laden thriller, not without flaws. Overall, it does the job of sucking you in and never letting go, not until the last beat.
When Professor Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) finds a young boy named Brady (Mason Gamble) stumbling through the road, bloody, arm nearly blown off, he rushes the kid to a hospital frantically. There, he meets the parents – Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins & Joan Cusack). They are grateful to Michael, and as it turns out, live right across the road. So Michael and his girlfriend Brooke Wolfe (Hope Davis) befriend the new neighbours. The families become friends, especially Michael’s boy Grant (Spencer Treat Clark) and Brady.
Things aren’t everything they seem, though. With his studies in American History/Terrorism, as well as the fact his former wife died in the line of duty with the FBI, Michael knows almost too much about the lives and habits of terrorists. So when Oliver and Cheryl begin to seem suspicious, it takes him into an obsessive loophole of paranoia, guilt, and a strong wave of fear. As things get more tense, Brooke and Grant may both be in plenty of trouble. Only Michael can figure out how to prevent that. Problem is, nobody else sees what Michael sees, and the more he fights to prove his theories, the more he appears crazy.
Can Michael determine what Oliver is and what he’s up to in time? Or is there anything to figure out at all?
The term paranoid thriller is one that fits easily with Pellington’s Arlington Road. And while the paranoia proves to be more dangerous than in certain other films, perilous for the main character spiraling into it, this screenplay really plays on the emotions. Bridges’ character devolves into this paranoid man whose every move is marred by an unshakeable feeling of conspiracy, of terrorists lurking behind every corner of his own neighbourhood. Part of what’s so excellent is the fact we feel very much in the perspective of Bridges the whole time, yet we also see the other events and actions surrounding his situation; we know there’s something not quite right with his neighbours, particularly just before the last 40 minutes starts to roll, and still there’s an overwhelming feeling of seeing things solely through Bridges’ point-of-view. Getting both sides, somehow Pellington traps us with him and the fear, the suspense is all so tangible.
Pacing in a thriller like this, which keeps us guessing to a certain point then replaces any of that suspense with action and plenty of tension, is an important key. And from the moment Faraday (Bridges) starts to really catch onto a possible terrorist plot, there’s a frenzied, chaotic feel to many scenes. These get more and more frequent until Faraday is going full speed, chasing the team of people about to unleash a bombing on the city. The finale is an intensely executed sequence that makes us feel crazy like Faraday, it makes us feel frustration, even anger; everything a good film is supposed to do emotionally. Plus, Bridges help sell it incredibly well. But it’s how things are paced, moving quick and smooth from one scene to the next, which keeps us in league with the thrills. We follow along fast with Faraday, and never are we left in the seat of feeling safe or centered. The pacing keeps us glued, while simultaneously throwing us off our guard during certain moments. Regardless, we go chugging along to the end and the near two hour runtime never feels that long at all.
The acting is spectacular, particularly on the part of Bridges. I’m most impressed by the screenplay. When you consider the end – SPOILER ALERT – not many films have the fortitude to take it that far. Instead of us finding a happier, more pleasant ending, Arlington Road takes us into the depths of terrorism, striking at the happy heart with its shocking final moments. Furthermore, we’re also able to see how the media spins things, and how conspiracy theories are formed, how they breathe and live in the world. There are other films which tackle these types of issues. But Pellington’s film is able to get where many of those other cinematic experiences can’t, as they’re often not willing to go to the lengths this one does. If Faraday managed to save the day, this would be another cheesy crime-thriller, wrapped in mystery and paranoia. But instead of doing that, Pellington, through the writing of Kruger, crafts something lastingly haunting, devastating, and it carries a strong message. I’m just glad this story plays out without having a racist angle, which of course is due to it being released in 1999. If it came after 9-11 this would be weighted down by racial issues and overtones. Arlington Road gives us all the examination of terrorism necessary, without relying on a religious or political dichotomy, or casting a certain race as the only perpetrators of terrorist violence.