A Threat Near You

Arlington Road brings domestic terrorism to the neighborhood multiplex

I've been at some PTA-type meetings where the security of community has been breached. People I had thought were "normal"--people whose kids hang out with my kids--have suddenly revealed a world of difference in ideology, income, or experience. A father turns out to be a chauvinist, a mother is a gossip, and both of them are overpaid racists. Whatever we'd had in common is was abruptly negated. I thought they were part of my neighborhood, but they're not.

Mark Pellington's Arlington Road is going for that same feeling of distrust, with a darker twist. It uses the neighborhood as a microcosm of America, which places it in a long line (not quite a genre) of meet-the-neighbor movies that stretch from nostalgia and slapstick to drama, suspense, and sci-fi. Pellington's neighbor movie sits on the drama/suspense side of the block--closer to Hitchcock on the same street that includes both Rear Window and The Coneheads. Dangerously closer, in fact, since the predicaments in which Professor Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) finds himself are right next door to those in North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much: The shadow of a doubt leads to shock and relief, and then to bigger shocks.

Faraday teaches American history and has a special course on terrorist movements throughout the decades. His late wife was an FBI agent who was killed during a botched stakeout of a well-armed cabin in West Virginia, and he's just starting to emerge from his mourning in a cozy suburban home that he shares with his preteen son Grant (Spencer Treat Clark). But then he discovers a kid of Grant's age staggering down the street with a burnt stump of a hand, and he meets the kid's parents, who may or may not be "normal" neighbors. They are Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack), and apart from extra-trim haircuts and a preference for schools that require uniforms, they seem open and friendly. Because Faraday saved their son's life, they let him into theirs--which, on the surface, has familiar amounts of material comfort and compassion.

But this is a thriller, of course, and in the bargain it's drawn from headlines about clean-cut terrorists, office-building bombings, and the wilder side of third-party politics. Arlington Road was supposed to open earlier this year, but was held back in the wake of the Littleton shootings. Now, with the recent discovery of Sara Jane Olson/Kathleen Soliah, the film seems even more timely. Blessed by circumstance and coincidence, Arlington Road still has a decent point to make about how violent dissent has always been with us. That point is made clear early on, as Faraday goads his students into acknowledging their fears for safety while also admitting their urges to find a culprit, watch him die, and close the case.

Too much of this classroom material would turn the movie into a lecture, and so Pellington is wise to make it the story of particular people in a particular situation. Faraday senses holes in his new neighbor's account of his past, and uses his academic privilege to check on transcripts and historical records. He finds that Oliver changed his name once, and that as a teen he engaged in some violent political activity. Faraday also discovers that Oliver is investigating his background in a way that isn't merely coincidental. Faraday's research comes to a head when Oliver, who has claimed to be a structural engineer, pops up at the professor's college library, peering over his shoulder at some incriminating microfilm.

Pellington cut his teeth on music videos (he has made celebrated shorts for the likes of Pearl Jam and Public Enemy, in addition to directing the feature Going All the Way), so it's no wonder that he's a deft shaper of odd lighting, shifty camerawork, and heart-attack editing. Although he isn't able to stretch this technique over an entire movie, Pellington begins Arlington Road as a daylight nightmare, and as things get darker and more intense for Faraday, so does the style. The visuals are never more garish than when Faraday stumbles into Oliver's backyard party of people who clearly aren't from the neighborhood. While the camera reels around the yard, the guests are lit like aliens--but whether they're the aliens of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or some old Saturday Night Live skit is up to you, since Pellington doesn't seem to know, either.

Put simply, Arlington Road is afraid of its domestic terrorists, but it doesn't understand them. In fact, the film condescends to them. It feels strange to be asking for better treatment of terrorists on the big screen, but the context of this movie is narrow, and there are some embarrassing judgments of ideological representation: Some suspicious gun dealers are made to look like sick hillbillies, a Boy Scout-style troop wears overloaded uniforms that are ridiculously close to Nazi Youth garb, the scariest people are the ugliest, and the great Joan Cusack seems to be acting in a comedy while everyone else is in a thriller.

Cusack's gift for eccentric ordinariness is a real treasure elsewhere, but in Arlington Road, when Pellington needs her to be sinister, she's merely funny. So while the hints of conspiracy creep along, and the tension is wound tighter, there are smaller clues that these people might be easier to dismiss than to fear. Obviously, this works against the movie's main idea. In a way, I wish there were more scenes like Faraday's early classroom rant, moments that would ground the film in historic reality. But instead, lectures give way to haunted-house surprises, while any reminder of domestic terrorism's threat to the state is left to a glimpse of the Capitol Building off in the distance. Even worse, it's suggested much too late that Oliver may not have been Faraday's neighbor by accident, and that there are more sinister powers at work.

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