This is one of these movies that are frustrating. Not because they aren’t good: this is a superior, generally well crafted picture. It’s just that it had the potential to be more, but the filmmakers unfortunately didn’t take it quite there. “Arlington Road” touches the controversial and undeniably actual issue of terrorism. We’ve seen a lot of movies involving terrorists, but they are usually more action-oriented and almost always feature foreign terrorists, whether Arab, European or whatever. The scary reality brought up by this film is that nowadays in America, most of the extreme acts are committed by Everyman, a friend, a relative, a neighbor. Oklahoma City. The Unabomber. Colombine High School. When tragedies like this happen, people don’t feel safe anymore, until someone is found to be blamed. Then it’s okay. Oh, it’s these two kids alone who shot their classmates, end of story. It’s not a growing social problem alienating young people, uh uhn. A bomb blows up dozens of innocents? You don’t need to worry, they said on TV that it was the action of that one man alone, that one different guy with his very exceptional, particular situation. So we feel safe.
But what if, the movie advances, what if this was part of a bigger picture? What if underneath the pleasant facade of suburbia crawled conspirators carefully planning terrorist acts? Michael (Jeff Bridges) believes that. Paranoia? Maybe. He spends most of his time researching domestic terrorism, for he teaches a college class on the subject. And then he tries to enjoy life at home, which is not easy. His wife was murdered during a botched FBI raid, leaving him alone to raise his young son. Michael is now seeing a former student, but he’s still haunted. His life is stirred some more when he comes across a wounded kid in the middle of the street and does everything he can to save his life. That leads him to meet the kid’s parents, Oliver (Tim Robbins) and Cheryl (Joan Cusack). He realizes that they’re his next door neighbors, and wonders why he never noticed him. And as he gradually befriends them, little things start bothering him, and he begins to suspect they might actually be terrorists…
Okay, I gotta stop right here. This is the kind of film which is better the less you know about it. Of course, dumbass marketing executives have spoiled many twists in tell-all trailers, but that doesn’t mean I gotta take part in this nonsense. So see the movie and enjoy its surprises for yourself. What I can do is comment the way this story is brought to the screen. “Arlington Road” was directed by Mark Pellington, whose debut “Going All the Way” is supposed to be pretty good though I haven’t seen it yet. What’s for sure is that he shows great potential in this movie. It isn’t flawless, but it effectively builds tension, and it has an interesting visual style. I enjoyed how Pellington takes his time depicting the progression of his protagonist’s paranoia, as layers after layers are peeled off until the absolutely unpredictable, thought-provoking finale. I’m telling you, this film has one of the most shocking, uncompromising endings in a long while. Unfortunately, the film takes some wrong turns getting there. You know, the kind of manipulative, unbelievable tricks that make conventional thrillers. Like scenes in which people seem to sneak out of nowhere, or when things happen almost only because it serves the plot.
Still, “Arlington Road” is unusually smart and relevant, and it benefits from expert cinematography, a creepy score from Angelo Badalamenti (who composed the music for most of the films of David Lynch) and intense performances from the leads. Jeff Bridges has always been a skilled dramatic actor, but it’s only recently that he really struck me as an original talent with his colorful comic turn as the Dude in the Coen’s “The Big Lebowski”. Here he returns to serious matters with good results. I felt compelled to follow his character’s struggle throughout. Tim Robbins is also a great actor (and a Coen alumni too, as he starred in “The Hudsucker Proxy”), and it’s interesting how he and Joan Cusack (better known for her Oscar-nominated comedy roles in “Working Girl” and “In & Out”) toy with Bridges – and the audience. Bridges has reasons to believe they’re hiding something, but they look so… normal. That’s the scary thing, you see. Who knows if the next infuriated citizen to bomb a building isn’t the nice man down the street?