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Pulse-quickening tension and great performances cover plot gaps

Arlington Road
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, Hope Davis, Robert Gossett, Mason Gamble, and Spencer Treat Clark
Screenplay: Ehren Kruger
Producers: Tom Gorai, Marc Samuelson, and Peter Samuelson
Director: Mark Pellington
MPAA Rating: R for violence, disturbing thematics, and language

Arlington Road is a film that sets out to entertain by shocking the viewer. However, it does not resort to the cheap gimmicks of some films like The General's Daughter or 8MM. Instead, it plays with a fear that each and every one of us has. It takes that fear and exploits it with near perfection, grabbing the viewer by the throat and making us watch. In the final moments of Arlington Road's run, I realized that not for one moment during the film's run had I not been involved emotionally. It's a film unlike any I've seen in recent memory. It's without a doubt the most disturbing film I've witnessed since David Fincher unveiled his moral tale otherwise known as Se7en.

And this is a summer flick. Of course, it was not intended to be. I recall seeing previews for this film late last year, but Sony kept pushing the film's release date back. It meant only one thing: they had a stinker. Almost every film that continuously gets shoved around for a good date to be released is guaranteed to be a bomb, but again Arlington Road defied expectations. Sony's reasons for pushing this back are noble: due to the saddening events at Colombine High School in Colorado, and the film's similar themes, it only seemed tactful to move it further away from that tragedy. It is now considered a summer flick, and yet, like Se7en (which was also a summer release), it doesn't play to the audience's hopes. It takes all of Hollywood's set norms for a summer blockbuster and takes them for a loop. Arlington Road is not out to make you feel good. It's out to push your buttons and to make you think. And it does so while being as entertaining as possible.

Arlington Road begins eerily enough: a young boy is seen walking down the middle of a suburban street, seemingly in pain. Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) discovers him, only to realize that the young boy's hand has been blown off and charred. Michael rushes him to hospital, where he meets the boy's parents, Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack). It seems that young Brady (Mason Gamble) had been playing with fireworks and, on a dare from his friends, was still holding the explosives when they went off. As it turns out, the Langs live right across the street, and have been there for the past two months. Michael is rather disturbed be the fact that he doesn't even know his neighbors. Thanks to the incident, Michael becomes good friends with Oliver and Cheryl.

Quickly, the paranoia sets in, as Michael begins to suspect Oliver of not telling him the whole truth. He discovers letters addressed to someone of a completely different name, he stumbles upon blueprints for buildings Oliver isn't working on (Oliver is conveniently a structural engineer). Michael's girlfriend Brooke (Hope Davis) thinks his work is overwhelming his logic--Michael teaches at a local university, focusing on terrorism and the people that commit these acts. On top of it all is Michael's grieving for his deceased wife (Laura Poe), who was shot dead during a misunderstanding that could have been prevented with good communication within the FBI. Are Michael's suspicions unwarranted or are the Langs secretly right-wing terrorists? It's up to Michael to find the truth.

Arlington Road is, at its core, the ultimate suburban nightmare. The film never asks easy questions, and the answers it gives us are even more difficult to handle. The screenplay by Ehren Kruger tackles the fears that we have of anonymity today, as well as the secrets people hold back from others. What information do we as American citizens have the right to know about the people living next door? Kruger's screenplay is intelligent and deals with these questions thoroughly and objectively. But more importantly, the film questions the very logic of America's foremost objective: security. America and its citizens are focused on attaining a life of security in an insecure world. We want to feel safe from all the horrors we hear about and witness. We watch TV and news programs to learn what is going on, but we are distanced from it. The onslaught of technology has led to a more detached nation. Arlington Road questions that so-called security--what if the people next door are the people we should be most afraid of? In a time when our nation is disputing and dealing with horrors in other countries, we are forgetting the most dangerous country of all is our own.

Directed by Mark Pellington, Arlington Road becomes something more than your typical, run-of-the-mill thriller. Stylistically, it's quite impressive, with a washed-out look and sped-up action that increases the suspense during chase scenes. The film takes an hour for setup, which is a mixed blessing. It tends to hold the film back from achieving greatness, but it also allows viewers to get attached to the characters on screen. We learn about these characters, and after we care for them, the film spins us around and takes us for a rollercoaster ride of emotions. We watch as Michael's paranoia drives him to do crazy things, and he soon abandons those around him. He ignores his son and his girlfriend, putting full attention to finding out what the Langs secret is. Perhaps he is crazy, and the Langs are the typical American family. Or perhaps he is right, and the Langs have a sinister plan in store. Both are plausible, and it is only in the final half hour that we are finally given an answer. Pellington masterfully manipulates our expectations, and ends with a conclusion that is at once heartbreaking and frightening. It's one of the best endings I've seen in years.

Jeff Bridges must be given credit here for creating a character that is both tragic and easy to connect with. Bridges is perfect as your everyday man who finds himself in extraordinary circumstances. He gives us an emotional center to hold onto, and he propels the film forward. Tim Robbins is fantastic as a man who may be holding something back for purposes unknown. Robbins taps into one of our greatest fears as Americans: the average citizen who might be the terrorist you've always heard about. It's a masterful performance, and he pulls it off well. The real scene-stealer is Joan Cusack who creates a caring, loving wife and mother. We all recognize her from our own neighborhoods, and Cusack pulls it off perfectly. Watch for her heart-wrenching scene when she confronts Michael's girlfriend at a phone booth. Hope Davis is a nice surprise as well. Davis' emotional breakdown is realistic and sad, and her performance is the perfect blend of love and anger. It's a talented cast digging into controversial matter and succeeding extremely well.

Arlington Road is rated R for violence, disturbing thematics, and language. The violence is suitable for the themes at play here, and there are moments that are shockingly realistic, particularly during a bombing of an FBI agency. At what costs are we willing to sacrifice our own security? Kruger's screenplay offers some difficult theories, including the "scapegoat" theory. We are led to believe that one person was involved in the Oklahoma City bombing, but how can we be satisfied with that answer? Arlington Road gives us an answer... it's an answer that evokes terror and fear in the heart. I know for certain I will never look at my next door neighbors the same way again. After seeing this film, you probably won't either.

***1/2 out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
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