movie review by
Gary Johnson


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Arlington Road

Arlington Road was initially slated for release earlier this year, but after the events in Littleton, Colorado, Screen Gems pushed back the release date by several weeks. It's easy to see why: Arlington Road treads upon some very delicate territory as it introduces us to a situation with several similarities to the Oklahoma City Bombing. However, the filmmakers aren't particularly interested in helping us understand how acts of terrorism take place. And they aren't interested in helping us understand the mind of the terrorist. Arlington Road simply uses the threat of terrorism as a means for providing thrills.

A couple of years ago, following so closely in the wake of the Oklahoma City Bombing, a movie like Arlington Road wouldn't have been possible. Even the most insensitive filmmakers wouldn't have dared to use a terrorist bombing as the basis for a crime thriller. The X-Files movie (released in the summer of 1998) did indeed include a scene where a bomb devastated a government building, but it kept the human carnage to a minimum. Arlington Road, on the other hand, doesn't back away from bloodshed. Its very first scene shows us a young boy staggering down the middle of street after an explosion has left him dazed and bloodied.

It might sound like I'm preparing to rip into Arlington Road and its filmmakers for exploiting one of the most disturbing chapters in our country's history, but that's not the case. While Arlington Road will probably seem like crass exploitation to anyone touched by the Oklahoma City Bombing, it is also a savvy piece of filmmaking laced with unsettling doses of paranoia. The X-Files looks like child's play in comparison. And while it's easy to slam the movie for only superficially examining the subject of terrorism, this is also paradoxically the movie's saving grace. Instead of pretending that they understand terrorism, the filmmakers let terrorism remain a disturbing unknown. The men and women who plot bombings don't look like nuts. They look like anyone else. They might even be living across the street, in a nice suburban home with a tidy green yard.

As with other recent American thrillers, such as Apt Pupil, the filmmakers suggest that suburbia itself is rotting at its core. The dream of most Americans--to move to the suburbs and into a large tract house with a backyard just perfect for barbecue parties--has become suspect. Suburbia's capacity for banality and complacency has emerged as the symptom of a disease, where our neighbors aren't who we think they are, where anger festers and becomes cancerous: "Are you happy in your godless suburban life?" asks a terrorist in Arlington Road.

Instead of focusing on the terrorists, Arlington Road focuses on a professor of modern history at George Washington University. Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) is a widower whose wife, an FBI agent, was killed in the line of duty two years earlier: "She died for her country," he says with a hint of cynicism. This experience has left him confused and suspicious. But the pieces of his life are beginning to come back together. He even has a girlfriend now (Hope Davis) and his friends say they look great together. Yet, paranoia is part of his job. This semester he is teaching a course titled "American Terrorism," which includes field trips to famous sites where American blood was shed by terrorist bullets and bombs. As he lectures his class, the facts of each case spray from his lips like caustic acid: "We needed to have this man to blame," he says about a man accused of bombing a federal building in St. Louis. "We wanted one name and we wanted it fast--because it gave us our security back. But the truth is we'll never know."

This is a key line of dialogue, for it lies at the very heart of the movie. By investigating the political agenda of the terrorists or by providing them with psychological backgrounds, the movie would allow the danger of terrorism to become recognizable and thus preventable. However, the filmmakers want to keep us on edge. They want to deny us security. They want to sow the seeds of paranoia and then watch us get the shakes when the big unknown quietly grows to mammoth proportions outside our window sill.

For Michael Faraday, the big unknown is represented by the family across the street: "Two months they've lived there and I haven't said one word to 'em," he says. At first, his words are meant to signal the emotional chasm that separates Faraday from his neighbors. He's astonished and a bit embarrassed that he doesn't know the family. But soon Faraday becomes suspicious of the Langs (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack). After all, it was the Lang's son who Faraday rushed to the hospital in the opening sequence. How did the boy get hold of explosives, for starters? Something about the Langs isn't quite right. They're a little too distant, a little too smug, a little too bland, a little too soft-spoken. And the husband, Oliver Lang, insists he went to Kansas State University, but a misdelivered piece of mail that Faraday finds in his mail box tells him that Lang went to the University of Pittsburgh instead. Soon after Faraday begins looking into Oliver Lang's background, he begins finding inconsistencies, such as a name change, but everything he uncovers is explainable--as Faraday's girlfriend points out. But still, like Rosemary's husband, Guy, and the nosy neighbors in Rosemary's Baby, the Langs don't seem quite right.

Comparisons with Rosemary's Baby are apt because both movies are about stripping back the layers of normality to reveal the horrible truths that lie buried beneath the surface. Both movies pull us head first into a world of paranoia, where all our perceptions are filtered through the perceptions of a character teetering on the brink of insanity. We even get a party scene in Arlington Road that bears a strong resemblance to the party scene from Rosemary's Baby. However, while Rosemary's Baby emerged during the '60s sexual revolution, when matters of personal freedom took center stage across the country, Arlington Road arrives when the results of wanton terrorism--directed internally by people very like the victims themselves--have taken a horrible toll on the psyche of this country.

Directed by Mark Pellington, who also directed 1996's Going All the Way (starring Ben Affleck and Jeremy Davies), Arlington Road is an unnerving experience that will push you to the edge of your seat. At times the movie falls prey to its own paranoia-drenched attitude, as when it utilizes some goofy, tilted camera angles and low-angle lighting. In these moments, the movie begins to drift into parody, but even these moments are filtered through Faraday's increasingly twisted perceptions--and thus they aren't without their own rationale.

While Enemy of the State also reveled in paranoia, it allowed the audience off the hook by giving us a one-in-a-billion scenario. The threat it provided was very, very remote. But the threat Arlington Road provides is very real, and very close at hand, and that makes it all the more intimidating and unsettling.

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]