Arlington Road (review)

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Know Thy Neighbor

Coincidences are the building blocks of paranoid delusions: a car crash here, a hang-up phone call there, and pretty soon we’re talking massive conspiracy. Coincidences are anathema to good storytelling: the car crash here and the phone call there must have something to do with the story if the audience is to accept it. Real life is full of coincidence and events that occur for no reason whatsoever; any movie full of such things would be a disaster. Hence, it must follow that in a movie about paranoia: 1) the paranoid must turn out to be justified in his suspicions, 2) typical filmic expectations will be cleverly confounded, or 3) the film must fall down as a film eventually.

Arlington Road manages to be 4) all of the above. A thoughtful, complex, genuinely emotional psychological thriller, it’s smart enough to make me wish it were even smarter, especially when the smarter route was there to be taken.
As soon as the lights go down, Arlington Road‘s creepy opening sequence lets you know you’re not in for the usual Hollywood tripe — in the hands of a director like, oh, Michael Bay, this could so easily have starred Bruce Willis and one of the lesser Baldwins and been all flash and wisecracks. Instead, director Mark Pellington and writer Ehren Kruger give us a hint of the feverish slow-burn to come with nightmarish, out-of-focus images of a dazed boy stumbling down the middle of a deserted suburban street, bleeding, his hand near blown off. Along comes Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges), into this solidly upper-middle-class neighborhood in his solidly upper-middle-class SUV, on his way home when he discovers the boy in the street. Michael cries frantically for help from the surrounding homes, to no avail — the first taste of the theme of suburban isolation the film will touch on — and finally races this child, a stranger to him, to the hospital himself.

The kid, Brady (Mason Gamble, from GATTACA), turns out to belong to the Langs, the family living right across the street from Michael’s house: Oliver (Tim Robbins, from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me), an engineer; Cheryl (Joan Cusack, from Grosse Pointe Blank), cheerful soccer mom; and a passel of kids. Michael, as stunned as Brady by the experience, marvels to his girlfriend, Brooke (Hope Davis, from The Imposters), that even though Brady lived within sight, “I didn’t even know his name.” But the more Michael, Brooke, and his young son, Grant (Spencer Treat Clark), get to know the Langs, the less Michael likes them.

A college professor teaching a course on “American terrorism,” Michael hasn’t quite recovered from the death of his wife, an FBI agent, in a Ruby Ridge-style standoff. So he’s already a little on edge when a typical suburban snafu — a piece of misdirected mail — first leads him to believe that Oliver is not whom or what he claims to be. As he roots around, investigating Oliver’s past, Michael begins to wonder whether his neighbor was involved in the recent St. Louis bombing of a building housing federal offices (think Oklahoma City redux).

Is Michael just being paranoid, inventing a nefarious past and present for Oliver from random bits of coincidence? Are the Langs merely the church-group-attending, little-league-playing, puff-pastry-eating suburbanites they appear to be? As Michael descends into obsession and high anxiety, the film returns to the dreamlike quality with which it began, reflecting Michael’s fear and confusion — the Langs’ house, for example, is now lit up at night with spooky orange lights, looking like a face made scary by a flashlight placed strategically under the chin. The screen personas of Bridges and Robbins play into the audience’s doubts: Both have made a career of playing slightly crazy characters, so the question becomes, Which one is the nutjob here? (Cusack, too, plays with her image of a woman on the borderline: Is she just the normally scary type of Stepfordesque suburban mom, or is she a conniving terrorist in league with her husband? All three are perfectly cast and a delight to watch.)

Unfortunately, this is a Hollywood movie, and Hollywood-style promotion has already ensured that we know how things will turn out, for the most part, if we hadn’t guessed already. Who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s good and who’s bad must be clear-cut: Hollywood deplores shades of gray. And despite a clever setup that could have seen the film turn in several different, original ways, the third act is a mess: What could have been a keen character drama, an even more incisive psychological thriller, instead deteriorates into car chases and fistfights. Michael’s apparently paranoid connections turn out not to be coincidences, yet the conniving twist of the plot at the end relies on what turns out to be unforgivably convenient coincidences early in the film.

When I dwell on what might have been, I find myself disappointed with Arlington Road. But what’s actually there on the screen is still a cut above the typical summer blockbuster. Insidious and thought-provoking — though not in the way I hoped it would be — Arlington Road is an intriguing film, a cautionary tale for our uneasy times.

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