Arlington Road

A couple of weeks ago I saw a tight, thrilling, suspenseful 3-minute movie. Now someone has had the audacity to turn it into a two-hour coming attraction. The film is called “Arlington Road,” and unless you have been hiding in a cave the last three weeks, you know that it deals with a man who suspects that his neighbors may be more than they represent.

The 3-minute movie was the real coming attraction for the film, but like most trailers these days, it was nothing more than a condensed version of the film. I read recently where the filmmaker’s took great care to keep the plot, or at least major plot points, a secret.

Too bad they didn’t get to cut the trailer for the film, because the marketing people in all of their wisdom didn’t feel that less was more. They felt that more wasn’t enough, so they layer on one plot point after another until you actually feel like you’ve seen the film.

Indeed, there is little that is left to the imagination if you’ve seen the 3-minute trailer. The screenwriter, Ehren Kruger, takes every precaution in the film to keep us guessing. There’s real edge to the characters and situations. Director Mark Pellington does an excellent job of slowly drawing out the plot elements until it’s almost unbearable. That is, if you haven’t seen the trailer.

If you’ve seen the trailer (or even the 60-second television spot), then you already know too much. All of the filmmaker’s hard work is lost. What is ambiguous in the film is explained in the preview so that even the densest of viewer knows what is going on.

Too bad, because the actors actually bust their butts to create characters who have many shades. For instance, Jeff Bridges plays a man whose suspicions about his neighbors may be just paranoia.

After all, his character, Michael Faraday, has just gone through a tough time after the death of his wife. She was an FBI agent who was killed during a Ruby Ridge-type raid on a farmhouse. Now Faraday lives with his young son in a comfortable neighborhood outside of Washington D.C.

A college professor, he teaches history and a course on terrorism. Faraday is carrying around a lot of emotional baggage, a fact not lost on his new girlfriend Brooke (Hope Davis). Even though he pretends to be moving on with his life, his heart and soul are stuck in a dangerous place.

“Arlington Road” begins promisingly enough, where Faraday comes upon a boy walking in the middle of the street, dazed and wounded. After taking him to the emergency room, Faraday learns that the boy is actually the son of his new neighbors, Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack).

Faraday starts beating himself up for not being a better neighbor, and takes the opportunity to get to know Oliver and Cheryl better. At first Faraday is pleased to have a family on the block with a child his son can play with, but begins to let his suspicions get the best of him when little things seem out of place.

Is the terrorist expert really on to something, or is he projecting his paranoia into a full-fledged breakdown? While the trailer leaves none of this to the imagination, I won’t spoil it for you here if you haven’t seen the trailer.

Director Pellington does an excellent job of playing on modern day phobias (do we really know our neighbors?), creating moments of suspense and tension that are genuine. Kruger’s script is a little too preachy in moments, and spends way too much time with Faraday wallowing in his own self pity. There’s a much better story on hand, so why weigh it down with needless sermonizing.

Bridges excels as Faraday, a man who finds himself between a rock and a hard place and acts accordingly. There’s real desperation in his character, and Bridges walks that fine line between madness and paranoia.

Robbins is equally powerful, serving up a character so shaded that you never know which side of the fence he is on. Joan Cusack delivers a fine dramatic turn, hiding behind a smile that you just know is fake. The only thing missing is a “Stepford Wives” neon sign on her forehead.

Luckily, Pellington and Kruger manage to save a few surprises for the paying audience, so not all is lost. Decent performances, a constant sense of dread, tight direction and a topical subject matter (the film sat on the shelves for over a year to distance itself from recent terrorist acts) make “Arlington Road” a trip worth taking, but watch out for trailers.



Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, Hope Davis, Mason Gamble, Robert Gossett, Spencer Treat Clark in a film directed by Mark Pellington. Rated R. 118 Minutes.


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