Home on the Deranged

Fasten your seat belts for a very scary ride as the familiar suburban landmarks in "Arlington Road' suddenly seem awfully suspicious

July 09, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Rarely has suburbia looked as blandly malign as it does in "Arlington Road," Mark Pellington's taut, harrowing and thought-provoking new suspense thriller.

As early as the movie's first scene, of a young boy staggering down a well-kept street, the movie's atmosphere and emotional tone are made clear, driven home by images of benign domesticity -- a flag, a bird feeder, clothes flapping on a line -- shown in striking photographic negatives. In this disquieting movie, paranoia and suspicion rule the day, and even something as innocent as a Dalmatian gnawing a bone looks frighteningly ominous.

It is this vaguely threatening world that defines the inner life of Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges), a college professor whose specialty in American terrorism has become an obsession since the death of his wife four years earlier.

Shaggy, a bit unkempt, Faraday lectures his students on the Lincoln assassination, the Unabomber and Oklahoma City and grows increasingly wild-eyed as he insists that the country's need for a scapegoat has obscured a deeper, more far-reaching conspiracy of extremists. "We named him, and he is no more, and his reasons are gone, too," he says at one point. "We feel safe because we know his name."

As fragile as Michael's mental state is, it is showing signs of improving: He has the love of an understanding graduate student (Hope Davis), and he has recently met his neighbors, Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack). The couples' 9-year-old sons become playmates, and the two couples begin to socialize, creating some kind of warmth in their sterile cul-de-sac, but soon Michael begins to suspect that the Langs aren't what they seem.

There's something fishy about Oliver's engineering blueprints, and Michael is convinced that his neighbor has switched identities with another man. Could it be that Oliver is a member of the same militia movement Michael has been studying? Or is Michael's hold on reality more tenuous than he thought?

Pellington builds up an excruciating sense of tension in "Arlington Road," which looks to such classics as "The Manchurian Candidate" and "The Parallax View" for its dark emotional world of paranoia and constantly shifting suspicions.

Pellington, who got his start filming music videos, films Michael's world in icy blues and grays, accentuating the sense of isolation he finds in suburban America, where roofs loom alarmingly over cedar fences and even a Boy Scout meeting takes on a creepy dimension. The movie's crisp, vivid look only heightens its underlying sense of things veering dangerously out of control.

Even when the audience is convinced that it knows who the bad guy is, Bridges and Robbins manage to keep us and each other off-balance in roles that seem tailor-made for these fine actors. Robbins tucks into his performance with relish, playing Oliver as a petulant but ingratiating rube, then spins on a dime to deliver one of the movie's most affecting monologues. Bridges, reprising his persona from movies like "Fearless," plays leonine desperation better than any actor alive; it's hard to imagine anyone looking appealing even as he becomes more sleep-deprived.

("Arlington Road" may be Robbins and Bridges' cat-and-mouse game, but mention must go to Cusack, now on a par with Joan Crawford as scariest lady in red lipstick; a scene in which she appears suddenly, rictus grin intact, is one of the movie's most frightening moments.)

"Arlington Road" offers the competing notions that suspicions about domestic terrorism are well founded but also that suspicions can kill. It's a difficult, complex political argument, which Pellington and screenwriter Ehren Kruger pull off with superb control and intellectual honesty. Waco, Ruby Ridge, Oklahoma City -- and now Littleton and Chicago -- are invoked but never exploited in "Arlington Road," even when it hews to such conventions as car chases, fist-fights, explosions and improbable coincidences.

With such a strong emotional and intellectual center, "Arlington Road" turns out to be one very smart and very stylish genre movie, an action thriller that never feels cheap or tired. You may think you know how "Arlington Road" ends, but the twists keep coming until the very last minute, finally making this one of the most legitimately terrifying movies of the summer.

`Arlington Road'

Starring Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, Hope Davis

Directed by Mark Pellington

Released by Screen Gems

Rated R (language and some violence)

Running time: 119 minutes

Sun score: *** 1/2

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