starring Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, Hope Davis
screenplay by Ehren Kruger
directed by Mark Pellington
by Bill Chambers Wrote Josh Young, in issue #493 of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: "With studios now viewing the mid-level, Oscar-nominated directors as a luxury they can no longer afford, established auteurs...are facing increasingly stiff competition from slick young music-video turks who'll work for a mere pittance." From its galling opening sequence, I wondered what Arlington Road would look like had it been sired by someone more established in movies than the director of Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" clip. Director Mark Pellington is so mindful of 'the image' that writer Ehren Kruger's plotting eventually drops off the tightrope of credibility. Could a veteran filmmaker, comparable in status to the late Alan J. Pakula, swindle us more successfully with the same screenplay?
Jeff Bridges is Michael Faraday, a professor of terrorism for Washington State. One afternoon, Faraday rushes his neighbours' boy, Brady (Mason Gamble), to the hospital after discovering him burnt, bleeding, and walking aimlessly down the street, the victim of a firecracker mishap. This occasions him to befriend Brady's parents, the Langs (Tim Robbins, weaker than usual, and Joan Cusack, who steals the show), and for a while, Faraday appreciates their company, as do his son Grant (Spencer Treat Clark) and girlfriend Brooke (Hope Davis). (Faraday's FBI agent wife was killed three years before in the line of duty.)
Faraday is suspicious by nature, though, and when one or two of Oliver Lang's anecdotes don't add up, he runs a background check on the family man. His findings indicate a checkered past for Oliver, but does that mean the nice people across the street are involved in extremism? The evidence that soon piles up--top-secret blueprints, phony identities--does not suggest otherwise.
This latest entry in the 'paranoia' genre at least presents an enemy that isn't a shadow government. In its place: a nuclear family. (Snicker.) Mr. Lang loves to work, Mrs. Lang loves to shop and cook and host parties, and the couple has raised towheaded children straight out of a Sears catalogue. Faraday's gut tells him that nobody's domestic life is this T.V.-perfect. (Think about it: they even named one of their kids Brady.) Such cynicism bears the mark of an MTV-generation director. So does the ungraceful editing: David Fincher (who helmed Seven and The Game after years at video and commercial house Propaganda Films) excepted, do Pellington and his peers think in strobes? Pellington's cutting creates panic rather than tension. He stages frenzied scenes that whip us into a tizzy without much regard for structure or pace. That the picture is more kinetic than engaging also makes its plotholes easier to spot. (Arlington Road's villains are psychic as well as psychotic: they foretell Faraday's moves with dubious accuracy.)
The film's most unnecessary sequence--it grinds the story to a halt--is also the most self-consciously "provocative": we see children with heavy artillery, blasting away at feds, most of whom die; we see a mother shoot Mrs. Faraday in cold blood with one hand, clinging to her newborn with the other. This is the mandatory flashback to the day Faraday became a widower. The images just described belong in a more serious, more responsible picture.
After all, Arlington Road is only self-important. It has nothing substantial or enlightening to say on the subject of extremism, though the children-in-jeopardy angle does push one's buttons. Unlike The Parallax View's analogous climax, Arlington Road's grim finish is overwrought--it says more about the studios' new tolerance for unhappy endings than it does about that which it purports to comment on, i.e., America's want for scapegoats.