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Do you feel snug and secure in your cozy suburban life? Are you happy with your picture-perfect home, your carefully manicured lawn, your kids and their soccer games, and your barbecues? Do you feel safe? Well, the creators of Arlington Road, the ponderous new thriller starring Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins, have gone to great lengths to change all that. Their film is designed to be a wake-up call to the sleepy citizens of our nation, to those who, in their view, have grown fat and complacent during this long period of prosperity and have forgotten that the cost of security is eternal vigilance.
And why do we need to snap out of it and open our eyes? Because the enemy is close at hand. In fact he's just across the fence in the house next door. Directed by Mark Pellington from a screenplay by Ehren Kruger, the film features Jeff Bridges as Michael Faraday, a professor of American history who specializes in teaching the harsh realities of modern-day terrorism. To say that Michael teaches his class is not exactly accurate; what he does is rant and harangue his poor, unsuspecting students about every variety of conspiracy in tones that would make any street-corner maniac sound sane by comparison. And why, you ask? Because Michael doesn't just teach a class in terrorism; he lives it. His wife, it seems, was in the game, too, as an FBI agent who just two years earlier was killed in a gun battle with a suspected terrorist.
Before the film works up a head of steam, it starts to pile up the improbabilities, giving us reason to question its credibility. What's gratifying, though, is that even under these farfetched circumstances, Bridges still manages to piece together a convincing and affecting performance. As he plays him, Michael is a man who has been bludgeoned by life. Even with the support of his understanding new girlfriend, Brooke (Hope Davis), his pain is still right under the surface, and at times he seems to stagger around, almost drunk with grief, unable to move on.
Michael's next-door neighbors have pitched in, too, to help him move past the tragedy. Michael feels suspicious, however, of Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack): Why does Oliver, who says he is working as an architect on a mall project, have blueprints for something else? And why does he continue to get notices in the mail from the alumni committee of one university when he claims to have gone to another? With these facts in hand, Michael begins to poke around in Oliver's past, and what he finds convinces him that his friendly next-door neighbor may not be exactly what he seems.
Not that any of this comes as a surprise. From the moment he first appears, you don't have to be paranoid to see that Oliver is up to something. Oliver's plans remain mysterious, but the character generates very little in the way of suspense. As an actor, Robbins has demonstrated tremendous range and authority, but while his performance here shows both skill and conviction, it doesn't belong on the long list of his best efforts. As written the character is one-dimensional, and that is how it stays. The same is true for Cusack, who, as Oliver's wife, has a couple of choice moments in which she is both scary and funny, but for the most part she recedes into the background as part of the atmosphere of vague menace. At one point the filmmakers hint that all the little clues pointing to the sinister side of Oliver's character are in fact innocuous and ultimately don't lead us where we think they will, but this tack is abandoned almost as soon as it is offered.
There is nothing in Pellington's only other feature, Going All the Way, that would indicate he had the talent for this kind of suspenseful thriller. Everything he does here seems perfectly ordinary. If the picture has a style to speak of, it is, on the surface, the generic run-of-the-mill, big-budget studio thriller. But unlike most blockbusters, this film has an agenda. It wants us to open our eyes to the precarious state of our society, for, it says, things are far worse than we could have imagined. A war is being waged against the government of the United States by those who feel that it has grown too large and intrusive. Even with our current prosperity, the numbers of those who are convinced that our rights as individuals are being usurped have grown tremendously. And if we don't change our course, armed conflict is inevitable. There is nothing subtle in the way the filmmakers have presented their message here. They beat it into us with every frame, to the point where you can't help but feel wearied by the attack.
To say that the film is obvious is true, but only up to a point. The movie ends with an unexpected twist in the style of O. Henry or Ambrose Bierce, and for some, the surprise may salvage the movie. For the rest of us, though, the ending may simply function as the last straw.
Directed by Mark Pellington. Screenplay by Ehren Kruger. Starring Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, and Hope Davis.
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