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Movie Review

Nervous Neighbors on 'Arlington Road'

July 09, 1999|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Arlington Road" belongs to that splendid Hollywood tradition of dealing with serious, timely issues in the form of a suspense thriller. It's a tradition too often neglected nowadays, but which has been revived with bristling imagination and urgency--and without compromise--by director Mark Pellington, writer Ehren Kruger and stars Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins.

This Columbia-Screen Gems presentation (originally a Polygram film that was auctioned off when Seagram acquired the music conglomerate) could scarcely be more timely yet never exploits its concern with the seemingly inextricable and all-too-literally volatile relationship between contemporary terrorism and paranoia. It's a film that actually asks you to think at the same time it's bringing you to the edge of your seat, a refreshing change from so much mindless Hollywood fare.

When George Washington University history professor Michael Faraday (Bridges) rushes an unknown, injured 9-year-old (Mason Gamble) to the hospital, in effect saving the youngster's life, naturally Faraday becomes quickly acquainted with the boy's parents, Oliver (Robbins) and Cheryl Lang (Joan Cusack), who have recently moved in across the street from Faraday on Arlington Road, in an upscale suburban Washington, D.C., tract filled with spacious near-identical brick homes done in an ungainly though expensive watered-down Georgian style. Widower Faraday, his 10-year-old son (Spencer Treat Clark) and Faraday's girlfriend, Brooke Wolfe (Hope Davis), his former teaching assistant, soon become regulars at the Langs' backyard barbecues.

Yet for all their warm hospitality and down-to-earth manner, Faraday soon starts becoming suspicious of Oliver Lang, who has said he's a structural engineer currently working on a shopping mall parking structure addition. Very quickly Faraday has reason to feel that this doesn't sound quite right; nor do a number of other things about Lang.

As it happens, Faraday teaches a course in American terrorism that seems calculated to leave his students in a state of paranoia rather than to explore possible solutions. This becomes understandable when we learn that his wife, an FBI agent, had been killed in a misfired siege, clearly a variant of the 1992 Ruby Ridge standoff. Pretty soon Faraday is beginning to wonder if Lang isn't a terrorist of some sort, much to the chagrin of Wolfe, who criticizes him for beginning to invade Lang's privacy.

Kruger and Pellington are whizzes at leading us up the garden path: Just as you thought Faraday's classes were awfully preachy--and thereby the film itself--you learn about his wife. Just as you begin thinking that Wolfe is obtuse, and then Faraday a bit too paranoid, the plot really thickens as little by little, more is revealed.

In short, "Arlington Road" is diabolically clever in the way it creates impressions of individuals and events only to get you questioning their validity in the very next scene. But it is a cleverness that is not trying to be mystifying for its own sake or even to heighten suspense, but to raise the larger issue of how terrorism, which inevitably produces paranoia, can both spread in a society in which impersonal government bureaucracies, whether on a federal, state or local level, can devastate individual lives yet so often not be held accountable.

"Arlington Road" reveals the dangerously growing chasm between government and segments of its people at a time when technology makes the invasion of privacy so much easier than in the past. It reminds us similarly of the vast array of sophisticated lethal technical devices available to those groups that feel driven to protest monolithic government with the most extreme violence.

The makers of "Arlington Road" have, in sum, brought all the cinematic talent and craft--including, crucially, those of virtuoso cinematographer Bobby Bukowski and inspired composer Angelo Badalamenti--they could muster to lay bare a dark undertow in American life that, left unaddressed, will surely proliferate at increasing peril to everyone.

This is an awful lot of serious thought to have been generated by what is first and foremost so successfully an edgy, action-filled entertainment, sustained by Bridges' enduring ability to project thoughtful men of decency and courage and by Robbins' complementary gift in being able to seem alternately ambiguous and convincing. Davis maneuvers Wolfe's shifting responses effectively, and as for Cusack, she to the end deftly keeps us guessing: Is she her husband's ally in whatever it is he may or may not be up to, or is she a veritable Stepford Wife? What is not at question is the creation of a rightly disturbing vision of America in a manner that is as provocative as it is responsible.

* MPAA rating: R, for violence and some language. Times guidelines: language, adult themes, with terrorist issues and related events too intense for children.

'Arlington Road'

Jeff Bridges: Michael Faraday

Tim Robbins: Oliver Lang

Joan Cusack: Cheryl Lang

Hope Davis: Brooke Wolfe

A Columbia-Screen Gems presentation of a Gorai/Samuelson production in association with Lakeshore Entertainment. Director Mark Pellington. Producers Peter Samuelson, Tom Gorai, Marc Samuelson. Executive producers Tom Rosenberg, Sigurjon Sighvatsson, Ted Tannebaum. Screenplay Ehren Kruger. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski. Editor Conrad Buff. Music Angelo Badalamenti. Costumes Jennifer Barrett-Pellington. Production designer Therese DePrez. Art director David Stein. Set decorator Barbara Haberecht. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.

At selected theaters.

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