Talal Derki's intense documentary dives deep into the dark heart of terrorism to explore how radical belief swallows entire bloodlines whole.
Bonello's film quietly satirises a dangerous subject, providing no answers, only important questions.
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.
Civic Duty. 2006. Directed by Jeff Renfroe. Screenplay by Andrew Lanter.
Starring Peter Krause, Kari Matchett, Ian Tracey, & Richard Schiff. Christal Films/Sepia Films/Landslide Pictures/Movie Central.
Rated 14A. 95 minutes.
Jeff Renfroe’s first debut feature One Point O is a thriller built on mystery and paranoia, so it’s no surprise Civic Duty is similarly styled. Although, this film digs into the paranoia of the right-wing after the events of September 11th. Of course this goes to an extreme, but that’s the point. Renfroe does a solid job directing this through its mentally twisty-turny corridors. The cinematography from Dylan Macleod captures a psychological perspective and plants us firmly in the middle of the main character’s head. With good directorial choices, as well as solid editing from Renfroe himself, plus the camerawork, as well as an amazing score that spells CLASSIC, Civic Duty pulls us into the post-9/11 hysteria that felt ready to pop in America.
Watch it nowadays and it takes on new life again, as the Syrian refugees come into America and Canada. Here in the North, even people I never thought of as racist/xenophobic are terrified of increasing immigration in light of ISIS. Considering the phobias and irrational fear after large events in the name of terrorism, Renfroe’s movie is interesting and it provokes some genuine thought. Not to mention the last few minutes, which have divided people (though if you’re paying attention it comes as obvious). Either way, this is a crackerjack little film with a heavy theme with an impressive performance out of Peter Krause.
Terry Allen (Peter Krause) is an accountant. Or, he was. Recently he got laid off, which he has to tell his wife Marla (Kari Matchett) at home. She’s supportive at first, and knows that he’ll get back on his feet. But during the day at home, Terry is bombarded by news, media constantly flying at him with George W. Bush decrying terrorists all around America, supposedly lying in wait for their chance to strike. Then a young man named Gabe Hassan (Khaled Abol Naga) moves in downstairs in the building where Terry and Marla live. Terry starts to believe Gabe is actually a terrorist, hiding among the normal residents of the complex. Slowly, Terry starts to dive further and further into paranoia, beginning to see things he suspects are suspicious. He even follows Gabe now and then.
When Terry finally calls the FBI and meets Agent Tom Hilary (Richard Schiff), things get serious. And once both Agent Hilary and Marla express their belief that Terry is only paranoid, he decides to take things into his own hands.
The focus on the money in Terry’s hands early in the film, as he gets his change back after buying postage at the post office, is a strong little point. Because this sort of throws us into his perspective, seeing things from his point-of-view. You can feel the stress and the pressure on him with this close, tight frame on the American dollars exchanged.
Also interesting is an early conversation between Terry and his wife. He refers to a man as “Middle Eastern“, and you can obviously tell she has a slight problem with the way Terry says it. While yes, it isn’t racist, the fact is clear: Terry sees people in terms of race. He could’ve used other words to describe the man, but chose those first.
Civic Duty is a paranoid thriller, often reminiscent of a Hitchcock film, both in the way it is shot, as well as how the score plays. When people call this a post-9/11 Rear Window, there’s a very good reason for such a comparison. So many scenes are even better for how the music ratchets up the suspense and the tension, as we ride alongside Terry and his paranoia. The editing helps, too. Almost every second scene has FOX News or a similar station playing reports on Muslims, terrorism, immigration, and of course – George W. Bush spouting off the written lines of rhetoric he was given. These elements combine to make the whole film uneasy, which is great because we’re, at times, not sure where the conclusion is headed. Going in, we almost assume the outcome will be that Terry is overreacting; a massive overreaction. But there are points the plot sucks us into his head, then the editing style, the score, the way things are framed and given to us, everything points to: how can you really know? So without a doubt the entire aesthetic of Civic Duty is a major part of its success.
Above all else, the film gains strength in its discussion of tough issues. Particularly, once Gabe and Terry engage in a truly strenuous conversation that these things come out to the fullest. Gabe starts bringing up all the conflicts in which America has been embroiled, mostly by their own choosing and intervention (wanted or unwanted), from Vietnam to Cuba, to all sorts of others. Most importantly, once we discover the truth of what’s been happening (re: Terry) it makes an excellent statement about paranoid racism and right-wing extremism. I specifically began to think of articles and other literature written about how times of economic downturn can make the right-wing extremists get even worse, pushing people to become more racist, more opposed to immigration, and so on. While I don’t think the very end is the best ending, something had to happen. Not that the conclusion is unwarranted, it’s merely a bit of a stretch; nothing major, just a little too convenient in some sense. The result of what happens to Terry could still have gone the same way without needing him to commit a particular act. Either way, this ruins nothing, and the message of the film comes across as strong as it can. And best of all? The last scene really hammers things home, while also making us wonder what will come of Terry, down the road.
Civic Duty‘s a definite 4-star film. While I could’ve used a bit more in certain senses – the pace lag at a few points, the screenplay could’ve drawn things out a slight bit more and added another 10-15 minutes to make that happen – overall, this is an excellent thriller built on fear, paranoia, and also on lies, deception. Part of this movie speaks to the fact many out there expounding upon their racist views often have something in their lives making them feel negatively about themselves yet turning it outward into the world. With a bit of twisting and turning, Jeff Renfroe does good work making us wonder and also making us think. If you need a nice, quick thrill, this is certainly one movie you ought to check out.