..

ARLINGTON ROAD

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, Hope Davis, Robert Gossett
Director:  Mark Pellington
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  117 Minutes
Release Date:  October 26, 1999

Film ***1/2

Ironically enough, I grew up very near a street called Arlington Road, which was as normal a street as you might expect to find in the heart of suburbia.  It united housing divisions with small businesses and schools, and it was about as normal and modest a place as any you might imagine, not unlike the street the majority of this film takes place on.  I liked the fact that it immediately brought to memory my sedate childhood, because it placed me directly in the mindset I’m sure that director Mark Pellington and screenwriter Ehren Kruger wanted their audience to be in.

Taken straight from our modern day headlines, fears, and paranoia, but feeling as classically suspenseful as any good Hitchcock picture, Arlington Road is a terrific example of how a good filmmaker can lead you along, taking you exactly where he wants to go in subtle, thoughtful, and natural ways, rather than making you feel like you’re being manipulated.  Here, the very real threat of domestic terrorism is the subject, and the notion that a suspicious acting neighbor may or may not be involved proves fertile ground for terrific storytelling, stellar acting, and of course, gripping suspense.

I will attempt to tread as lightly as I can here, because the less you know, the more you will enjoy the film.  Michael Faraday (Bridges) is a history professor who teaches a class on terrorism.  It’s a subject he seems to know pretty well, and in many well-played classroom sequences, we hear him discuss it not only from an academic point of view, but in a way that makes it personal for him and his class.  Why is it necessary, he wonders, for horrible acts of violence (a la Timothy McVeigh) always be attributed to a single, angry unbalanced individual with no ties to a greater conspiracy or organization?  For the same reasons discussed in Oliver Stone’s film JFK.  By making murder the act of a madman, we absolve ourselves of the responsibility, and protect our own fragile sense of security.

Faraday has two new neighbors, Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Robbins and Cusack).  They seem to be typically normal suburbanites, but certain actions of Oliver begin to arouse Faraday’s suspicions.  He catches him in a couple of lies, for example.  And certain things he sees in the Langs’ home weigh heavily on his mind.  The men who build the bombs are almost always described as “nice, quiet, normal” etc.  Is his own neighbor a terrorist?  Or has his imagination been fueled by his classroom work and his paranoia?

That is as far as I want to go plot-wise, but I will say that you will likely greatly appreciate the structure of the film, and how it swings naturally like a pendulum, back and forth, as to whether or not you believe Oliver is up to something.  Sometimes it’s like a dual pendulum, where you will be on a different page than Faraday.

I mentioned Hitchcock, and this film reminds me of the Master’s style in many ways; not just in the structure of the story, but in the cinematic techniques:  how chases are filmed, the way segments are edited, the use of swirling, panning cameras, and so on.  It’s clear that Pellington felt the influence of Hitchcock, and for this type of film, there is no director he could have better emulated.

Jeff Bridges is terrific in his role, but special mention must also go to Tim Robbins.  Robbins is a very normal looking guy, but he has a quality as an actor that can lead you to believe there might be something a little off-kilter going on behind his eyes.  He created a necessary ambiguity for his character in The Shawshank Redemption, and he does a similar turn here, which is enough to help keep the audience guessing about him.  Likewise, Joan Cusack is an actress with an ability to seem slightly off-center.  She often uses that talent for comedy, but it brings the right amount of suspicion when she uses it in this movie.

In the end, this is also a picture with a message, one I can’t delve into without revealing certain plot points.  But the message is very clear, and potent, and one that lingered in the air through the end credits, and is still haunting me as I write this review. 

Video ****

This is another quality transfer from Columbia Tri Star.  Visually, it’s expertly rendered, with sharp, pristine images and a clean print, excellent use of color, with natural tones and good containment, no grain or compression noted, and remarkable clarity of detail, right down to objects in deep focus. 

Audio ***1/2

Likewise, the 5.1 soundtrack is superbly dynamic, lingering quietly in many dialogue driven sequences but bursting to life during climactic ones, adding to the ebb, flow and rhythm of the picture.  The rear channels add effect to the film's car chases and other action sequences.  A terrific listen.

Features ***1/2

This disc offers a number of good extras, including a commentary track with Pellington and Bridges, the alternate ending, three trailers, production notes and cast and crew bios.

Summary:

Arlington Road is a wonderful throwback to Alfred Hitchcock, who could create terrific suspense and good characterizations in ways that compliment, rather than detract from, the storytelling.  If Gus van Sant’s Psycho remake seemed like a banal and failed attempt at a tribute to the master, this is a film you should check out, because it gets it right on all counts.