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And Boom! Goes The Dynamite: Arlington Road Review


Arlingtion Road

Note: Some points from the movie are discussed for the sake of the review. Bitter Balcony strives to leave all potential spoilers out, but if our review might hint on some, we apologize in advance.

“Arlington Road” was probably screened in Congress when The Patriot Act passed during the "W" era. Who would have guessed this 1999 thriller's gut-busting appetite for paranoia would have such foresight several years after its release? Whether there was prophetic intent or not, Mark Pellington's then-second film is a nerve-racking portrait of conspiracy-binded history professor Michael Faraday (the stalwart Jeff Bridges) still mourning his wife, an FBI agent killed during a raid gone awry. Questioning the establishment's proficiency in anti-terrorist tactics, Michael warns his students of a lurking new enemy of the state, while his sanity is held by the challenge of raising his son Grant (Spencer Treat Clark), who has his own reservations about dad's growing relationship with Brooke (Hope Davis). One day, he sees his neighbor's kid running on the street, which is not uncommon in suburbia, unless that boy has half his hand blown up. Racing against time, Faraday saves the boy's life by taking him to the hospital in the nick of time. The boy's parents, Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack), are more than grateful for Michael's act – one hell of an icebreaker for a guy who never bothered to notice them before. A friendship develops between the full-of-trust issues Michael and the goody-two-shoes Lang family. Hey, what's wrong with a neighbor whose interests involve baseball, camping and BBQ?

Unfortunately for Michael, he's stuck in “Arlington Road” instead of “The Road To Wellville” (well, unfortunate for him, but good for us). Wrongfully named correspondence, suspicious blueprints for alleged shopping mall projects, and mixed messages provoke Michael to suspect Oliver Lang’s goodwill. Of course, nobody believes him, not Grant nor Brooke – and especially not his FBI pal Whit (Robert Gossett), because then the movie would be over. No, poor Michael is left to snoop around all by himself, an amateur investigation that would connect the dots effectively if not for the presence of the Langs, who have the ability to appear at the door of every room Michael is in (a special ability endowed to would be thriller-genre villains). As Michael comes closer to deciphering Oliver's past, does the diligent professor have the evidence to stop a national infamy – or have his phobias gotten the best of him?

Mark Pellington's career took off in the early ‘90s with the dark music video for Pearl Jam's "Jeremy." As all flannel-clad rockers will remember, the video gave life to Eddie Vedder's lyrics about a troubled teen's ill-fated path to suicide. Pellington's twisted re-imagination of classic Americana involved a family dinner with Jeremy yelling to inaudible parents, and a classroom with kids wearing sparking clean uniforms, frozen and soiled with Jeremy's blood after he pulls the trigger on himself. The “Jeremy” video was controversial and gave the Grunge era the maturity it lacked with prior music video portfolios. Pellington's first feature was “Goin All the Way", a comedy about sexual exploration during the presumed innocence of the ‘50s. That film, featuring future stars Ben Affleck, Rose McGowan, Rachel Weisz, and Jeremy Davies, was fair, but lacked the nihilistic drive that made Pellington relevant.

For “Arlington Road,” Pellington went back to a negative vision of America, choosing the increasing threat of insurgent factions infiltrating urban life. The threat of a terrorist being Caucasian and patriotic is frightening enough, but the argument that our denial of these threats for the preservation of a sense of security is equally so. Michael is cavaliering over a transgression we will sweep under a rug. Obviously, these realities were impossible to deny with the 9-11 attacks, an atrocity too massive for any film, especially a film done a few years prior to the event, to speculate on our eventual disinterest. But what is fresh in “Arlington Road” is how true it rings in our strive for comfort by giving a face to the problem rather than exposing the symptoms. We sleep better at night when an athlete gets arrested for dog fighting while the crime is still being perpetuated by others, or if a financial guru is placed behind bars while fund-napping schemes are continue every day. Exaggerated as Michael's efforts could be perceived, to assume that evil deeds end with just one man are plain foolish.

While the film strives for tension, it is intriguing how Pellington finds a satirical tone to Ehren Kruger's screenplay (he's the guy who wrote “Transformers 2,” but don’t let that stop you from watching this movie). Borderlining on excessiveness, the Lang family's behavior is so strange, it feels like they where formerly residing in that suburb the Black Hole Sun video from Soundgarden was shot (Two bands from Seattle in one review, I dare my Seattle resident colleague JAS to do the same, poser). The kids are pristine and groomed like the Bradys, obedient more like Dobermans than disciplined children. Joan Cusack’s creepy Cheryl distorts the warm smile of a soccer mom into something perverse, a great role for an overlooked actress. Tim Robbins, as the head of household, is good at keeping us guessing with his boyish looks and passive-aggressive attitude. The Langs are unflinchingly normal if one doesn't pick up on the subtleties, details Pellington relishes on as to say how false the promise of an ideal American life really is. In the end, this is what Michael might want to protect, some ideal that has long been blown to bits.

Pellington has since become another promising filmmaker whose fuzz fizzled out, recently directing "Henry Poole was Here,” a title so lame the pitched sequel was titled "I'm with Stupid.” It's unfortunate since Pellington has the palette similar to contemporary music video alum David Fincher, not to mention an interest in diverse styles and genres. “Arlington Road” should have done for him what “Seven” did for Fincher. While “Seven” remains the superior film, “Arlington Road” has a defined mainstream pace while possessing the more brutal climax. Hopefully, like “The Hurt Locker” did for Kathryn Bigelow, a project will come around to rebound the guy who made it clear what “Jeremy” spoke today.




Directed by: Mark Pellington
Written by: Ehren Kruger
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, Hope Davis

Source of the Bitter: John Rojas

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