Paranoia -- or are they out there?

Another violent tragedy follows the release of 'Arlington Road,' bolstering the movie's point that we are all vulnerable.

July 11, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun Film Critic

When Mark Pellington showed his new movie, "Arlington Road," at the Maryland Film Festival in April, what might have been a giddy homecoming for the Baltimore native turned out to be an evening of more mixed emotions.

Just four days earlier, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had killed themselves, 12 of their classmates and one teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. And Screen Gems, the division of Sony Pictures that is releasing "Arlington Road," had informed Pellington the night before that they would be changing the film's release date from May until mid-July.

The studio's hesitation is understandable. "Arlington Road," a thriller about academic Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) who becomes convinced that his wholesome looking neighbors, Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack), are in fact right-wing terrorists, evokes events in recent history -- known by geographical names like Waco, Ruby Ridge, Oklahoma City and Littleton -- that represent hatred run amok, as well as an excruciating sense of pain, betrayal and confusion.

At first, Pellington was furious at yet another delay -- his film has been in limbo since last fall when its original studio, Polygram, was sold and then disbanded. But he became more philosophical about Sony's hesitation after he saw the movie in light of the week's events.

"Columbine was definitely running through my head," Pellington says when recalling the festival screening in Baltimore, "not because of the subject matter of kids shooting, but when [Jeff's character] was talking about how vulnerable we are and how safe we want to feel, I definitely thought about Columbine. It used to be assassination, then it was terrorism, now it's kids with guns -- whatever the most recent national scar is that exposed our fragility and vulnerability as a society, that's what seemed to be kind of in everybody's mind when they were watching the film."

Pellington acknowledged the irony that in the face of Sony's efforts, the latest rampage -- which left two dead over the July 4th weekend in the Midwest -- bears an even greater resemblance to his movie's themes of paranoia and self-deception.

"Whether it's out a window or with a handgun, it's that same thing," he said. "Everybody is vulnerable."

Pellington, whose late father, Bill, was a legendary linebacker for the Baltimore Colts, said he researched militia movements so that "Arlington Road" would be "ideologically sound." "Hit the keyword 'terrorism' [on the Internet] and it's phenomenal what you'll find," he says. Pellington relied heavily on updates and overviews from the FBI's anti-terrorism task force, as well as a 1997 book by Joel Dyer called "Harvest of Rage," about the roots of anti-government feelings among vigilantes.

The book "was a really fantastic primer for me and I gave it to all the key people on the crew because it really gave you a good historical perspective [about] where did this movement start and how did this growing disenchantment with the government come to fruition?"

Pellington discovered that the answer to the first question lay in the farm crisis of the 1970s, when so many family farms went under, resulting in deep feelings of betrayal toward the federal government. In "Arlington Road," Oliver Lang tells Michael Faraday that his father was a farmer who committed suicide after the government ruined his farm.

"That whole thing ... came out of an anecdote I read in one of the books, which was about a rash of suicides among farmers who had had their farms foreclosed. I thought it was an interesting emotional thing for Oliver to use, whether it was true or not."

Still, it was not Pellington's aim to make vigilantes sympathetic. Rather, he humanizes them just enough to keep Bridges' character off balance. And, he said, he wanted to portray just how mainstream many vigilante cells are.

The movie's screenwriter, Ehren Kruger, attended several militia meetings while researching the script, Pellington says. "He would sit there and he'd be hearing these people talking about soccer games and car pools and then the gavel would hit and they'd start talking about how [messed] up the government was. These were just kind of regular people who had kind of found this ... group of like-minded people."

"Arlington Road" fits squarely in the genre of paranoid thrillers with a deep mistrust of the government at its center, and Pellington dutifully watched classics like "The Manchurian Candidate" and the "Parallax View" to prepare for filming. But he mostly relied on Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" -- another film about the troubling world beneath an attractive surface -- "just to study how he controlled the palette and where the lighting began to change."

Reviews of "Arlington Road" so far have ranged from strongly positive to mixed. At least two critics have taken Pellington to task for exploiting the Oklahoma City tragedy and opening a wound that has not fully healed yet. Ironically or not, many of the harshest critics of "Arlington Road" have been in the alternative press, according to Pellington. "We got slammed in the Village Voice, but People loved it," he said.

"It's an interesting world and it's so heated, so hot that you're never going to please everybody. Jeff and I would feel bad sometimes during the shooting of it, about what we were making. This wasn't an easy film to make or an easy message or subject matter. We were never frivolous about it. If I got a call on my voice mail [from someone] who lost a family member or was very angry, that would be very distressing to me."

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