I remember seeing Arlington Road back when it first came out and being not just impressed with the filmmaking, but also genuinely discomforted by the story it told. How well do any of us really know our neighbors? Seems as if most of us are content to look to our own homes and not trouble ourselves with the lives of others. If we did start digging in our neighbors' yards, would we like what we see? Would we be in danger?
This is exactly the situation that Professor Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) finds himself in. A widower, Michael's wife was an FBI agent who was killed in the line of duty while investigating a supposed terrorist encampment. Her death has left Michael with a young son. Things are starting to look up for him, though. He's got a new girlfriend, Brooke (Hope Davis) and he's begun teaching a class on terrorism in honor of his dead wife. One day he finds a young boy wandering the neighborhood with horrible burns on his arm. Michael rushes the boy to the hospital, and discovers that he lives across the street. Determined to make an effort to be more sociable in the wake of the event, Michael makes friends with the boy's parents, Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack). At first, things seem to be going well. Michael and Brooke enjoy Oliver and Cheryl's company, and Michael's son makes fast friends with Oliver's. However, a few small things start to nag at Michael, who begins digging into Oliver's past. He discovers that Oliver once tried to bomb a federal building, and he starts to wonder if perhaps Oliver is planning something similar now.
The synopsis really does little justice to Arlington Road, as part of what makes the film so enjoyable is how it slowly ropes you in. The movie actually spends a good deal of time showing the minutae of family life. That is, the interactions between Michael and Oliver appear for a while to be just that of two ordinary dads, bonding over raising their kids. Director Mark Pellington slips clues in slowly and subtly, making the audience unsure whether or not Oliver is meant to be menacing or if perhaps Michael is just too paranoid for his own good.
The movie would have completely flopped if Pellington didn't get the right actors to play their parts. Tim Robbins is especially excellent as Oliver. It would have been deceptively easy to play him as a moustache-twirling villain, rubbing his hands together in a Mr. Burns-esque sort of way. But Robbins takes a more complex route and plays Oliver as a man who genuinely believes he's doing the right thing. That gives him a level of connection to the audience that becomes extra chilling when you realize just what it is he's intending to do.
If Jeff Bridges doesn't quite meet Robbins note for note, he certainly does his best to try. The problem is that Michael is written as a paranoid, untrusting, bitter person. Bridges at times indulges a little too deeply in these traits, going way over the top. But his explosions are rooted in the character, and played with energy, so it's a little easier to forgive. And it's not like Bridges is a bad actor. On the contrary, he's quite often excellent and he does some of his best work here.
Joan Cusack and Hope Davis give perfect support to the male actors. Cusack in particular is disarmingly charming. She's equally believable as a humble housewife or as a co-conspirator to murder. Hope Davis is the right mix of brains and beauty that would attract someone like Michael. She provides an important counterpoint to his more paranoid leanings, often vocalizing concerns the audience might be thinking at certain points. Both actresses elevate the film with their presence.
If there's any major drawback to Arlington Road, it's that at a certain point the film becomes a little too clever for its own good. Throughout the entire picture Pellington lays down clues for the astute audience member to pick up and put together. What's great is that the majority of these could either be signs that Michael is right, or just a product of his nervous mindset. Eventually, the film begins a series of events that rely more and more on the audience suspending their disbelief further and further, and eventually things just get a little too convenient. Everything Michael tries to do to alert the world has already been taken into account by his adversaries, and you just wonder how they knew he would take certain actions and disregard others.
But these scenes can either be looked at as a terrible contrivance or an inevitable conclusion. If you subscribe to the theory that Oliver really does mean harm, then you can very every scene in the movie as yet another part of his larger plan. Whether or not you end up going along will depend upon how well the movie sucks you in early on. Personally, it got me buying in all the way, but I could see how others might be disappointed.
The Blu-ray Disc: