The notion that there is something evil lurking behind a facade of picket fence tranquility is not new to the movies. Alfred Hitchcock did it best in 1943's "Shadow of a Doubt." Director David Lynch made his reputation going for this mood in "Blue Velvet" and his "Twin Peaks" TV series. The ghostly classic "Poltergeist" also contained some of this spirit.
But director Mark Pellington forgets a very important point in "Arlington Road," which combines the evil-next-door genre with a 1970s-style paranoid political thriller, ala "The Parallax View." Before it can be shocking that a great evil can exist in the middle of normal life, some semblance of normal life needs to be presented.
From the very first frame, until the end of "Arlington Road," nothing is ever normal. Pellington imbues every scene with creepiness by either lighting it strangely, shooting from a cockeyed angle, overusing hand-held jumpy camera work, and employing odd fields of focus (or non-focus). Then there's an overbearing musical score that makes the piano work from the old silent movies seem subtle.
Jeff Bridges stars as Mike Faraday, a college professor and the widower of an FBI agent who was killed in a bungled raid on a suspected extremist "compound." Faraday teaches a course in domestic terrorism, and even takes his class on field trips to the spot where his wife was killed. (You've got to wonder how the university writes THAT up in the catalogue.) Faraday's job gives the filmmakers lots of excuses to hammer home their Message in far too many windy, pedantic speeches.
When he's not haranguing his students about his conspiracy theories, Faraday is raising a young son Grant (Spencer Treat Clark) and wooing a graduate student, Brooke (Hope Davis).
The Faradays become close with their new neighbors, Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack) when Mike saves their son's life after a fireworks accident. But soon, the paranoia- minded Mike, finds that some parts of Oliver's claims about his job and background don't add up. From this point, the plot piles coincidence on top of contrivance as Faraday makes wild leaps in intuition, and manages to alienate both Brooke and his son - who has joined a crypto-fascist copy of the Boy Scouts that the Langs are involved with. We are supposed to believe that Faraday, who already knows Lang has lied about his past, would still let Grant go off on a 10-day outing. This makes the blond who goes down to the basement in a horror flick look shrewd.
There is no chemistry whatsoever among the characters in "Arlington Road," probably because there are no well drawn characters - only personifications of behaviors necessary to move the plot along. Tim Robbins mostly sneers his way through his role; (with background music worthy of Snidely Whiplash emphasizing just how sinister he really is) and Hope Davis is mostly along as attractive cannon fodder. Joan Cusack is creepy and funny, but she belongs in a movie with a sense of wit about it, not this plodding and pretentious mess.
The biggest disappointment, though, is Jeff Bridges. Usually a very fine actor, he overacts and mugs for the cameras in even the quiet moments in "Arlington Road." It's as though he's going for a Guinness record for Most Varied Facial Expressions in a Motion Picture.
Or maybe he's just grimacing at the lines of dialogue he has to recite. For people don't talk in "Arlington Road," they make pronouncements. The worst example of this comes in a late fight scene, where with his boy's life supposedly in danger and a terrorist act about to be committed, Faraday engages in a political argument!
A few great moments show what this movie could have been. "Arlington Road" actually does a pretty good job of showing how Federal law enforcement agencies either over- or under- estimate these threats, then over- or under- react. The flashback to the death of Agent Faraday is very effective. The climax to "Arlington Road," in a better movie, would have been considered a shattering masterstroke. It's obvious that it was thought of first, and the rest of the film was built around it.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film is not as well thought out or expertly executed as the shocking conclusion, which robs it of most of the power to move us.