July 9, 1999 | For as along as you remain
inside the theater - perched, more often than not, on the edge of your
seat - Arlington Road is suspenseful and persuasive enough to
keep you plugged into its paranoid melodramatics. After the closing
you're not so easily distracted from the evasions and ellipses.
you start to replay the movie in your mind - maybe as early as when
you reach the lobby - you begin to see past the smoke and mirrors. You
ask yourself questions, puzzle over fuzzy details, tally the number
of plot holes. Worst of all, you can't help wondering in retrospect
whether an early plot development is intended as an ironically tragic
coincidence or a monstrously evil contrivance.
Bridges gives a shrewdly calculated performance as Michael Faraday,
a widowed history professor who lives on the suburban street of the
title, and teaches a course in domestic terrorism at George Washington
University in Washington, D.C.
has more than an academic interest in his subject: His wife, an FBI
agent, was killed in the line of duty during an ill-planned raid on
right-wing fanatics. (Any resemblance between this event and the real-life
tragedy at Ruby Ridge, Idaho isn't coincidental.) Now a widowed single
parent, he has begun to rebuild his life with the attentive help of
Brooke Wolfe (Hope Davis), a beautiful - and, of course, substantially
younger - graduate student. But Michael can't help dwelling on the past,
and stewing over the bureaucratic foul-ups that led to his wife's death.
can he help noticing that his cheery new neighbors, Oliver and Cheryl
Lang, are behaving in a suspicious manner. Or, to be more precise, in
a manner that Michael interprets as suspicious.
first, Oliver (Tim Robbins) and Cheryl (Joan Cusack) appear no more
threatening than Ward and June Cleaver. They have a young son who's
roughly the same age as Michael's boy, and the kids spend a lot of time
in each other's houses. But Michael grows apprehensive when he discovers
that Oliver isn't exactly who he claims to be. And he becomes downright
terrified when he learns precisely why Oliver felt compelled to assume
a new identity.
blithely dismisses Michael's worst-case scenario as a paranoid fantasy.
And Whit Carver (Robert Gossett), an FBI agent who used to work with
Michael's wife, is every bit as skeptical. I don't have to tell you
what happens to these two non-believers, do I?
if you've somehow managed to avoid the spoiler-filled coming-attractions
trailers and too-revealing TV spots, you won't be shocked by the news
that Michael's darkest suspicions are entirely justified. (Let's face
it: When was the last time you saw a thriller in which the hero turned
out to be a delusional paranoid? Conspiracy Theory doesn't count
- bad guys really were after Mel Gibson.) Screenwriter Ehren Kruger
is good at many things - he's particularly adept at hiding clues in
plain sight - but he fails to raise any serious doubts about the true
intentions of the likely suspects. And it doesn't help much that, right
from the start, Robbins is transparently untrustworthy, while Cusack
comes across as a smiley Stepford Wife.
would be unfair - and inaccurate - to say there are no surprises in
Arlington Road. (There is at least one, a real doozy, near the
very end.) And it can't be denied that director Mark Pellington (Going
All the Way) keeps the movie percolating with a skillfully sustained
mood of mounting dread and jittery anxiousness. Sometimes impressionistic,
sometimes hyper-naturalistic, his storytelling style often is more interesting
than the formulaic substance.
it's all over, however, the house of cards collapses under the weight
of close scrutiny. So consider yourself warned: The best way to enjoy
Arlington Road is not to give it a second thought.