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Dec 11

Arlington Road (1999)

Critics did not take kindly to Mark Pellington’s Arlington Road when it hit theaters in the summer of 1999. This maligned psychological thriller breaks no conventions of the genre, but even that is not its core problem. In fact, I probably would have enjoyed a simple, well-made, by-the-book thriller. However, instead of paying homage to or simply borrowing elements from the best entries into the genre, the film too often resorts to cheap tactics to draw its audience in. Still, I give some credit: despite its lack of technical substance, Arlington Road had me on the edge of my seat for most of its tightly wound, 117-minute length. I even had to take a breather at the halfway point. And so, whatever its shortcomings, Arlington Road works on some superficial level.

Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) is a history professor teaching a university course on terrorism. His wife, an FBI agent, was recently murdered while on duty. Although Faraday is now dating another woman (Hope Davis), he and his son are evidently still grieving. On his way home from work one afternoon, Faraday happens upon an injured child. He brings him to the hospital, where he meets his parents, Oliver (Tim Robbins) and Cheryl (Joan Cusack) Lang. The two families, which happen to be neighbors, become quick friends. As Michael gets to know Oliver, however, he comes to suspect the worst: a membership to some homegrown terrorist organization. Bridges breathes emotional depth into his character, enlisting us onto his paranoid quest, while Robbins plays suburban evil with precision. Cusack and Davis deliver equally capable performances.

One of Arlington Road’s strong points is its seamless editing. Scenes blend into one another, conferring a continuous quality to the events unfolding on screen, which contrasts the traditional, “choppy” feel. Mostly uninterrupted by discernable transitions, the film’s brisk and steady pace effectively pulls you into the onscreen drama. Surprisingly, not even the inclusion of a flashback—which, next to dream sequences, is one of the hardest devices to pull off competently—disrupts the film’s flawless tempo. It is all the more impressive that the sequence additionally manages to be affecting.

Another element I appreciated about Arlington Road is plot timing. Lang discovers Faraday’s investigation at the halfway point in the film. Any earlier, we would have been deprived the thrill of sneaking behind Lang’s back, unraveling the mystery of his past. Any later, we would have been deprived the thrill of witnessing both men attempting to outsmart one another. Through the second half, the film is enhanced by a complex protagonist-antagonist dynamic. I especially liked how Lang feels he owes Faraday for saving his son’s life, despite wanting his nosy neighbor out of the way. That Lang manages to return the favor in the end, but in a way that may not satisfy audiences, shows the film is attempting to be cleverer than your run-of-the-mill thriller.

But, much does not work within Arlington Road. Like many (subpar) thrillers, it asks too much of its audience. Fiction is an opportunity to suspend disbelief, indulge in the implausible, and experience the impossible. While critical faculties never slip away altogether, the point of the exercise is to allow imagination to occupy more conscious space than usual. But first pestering and then exasperating our awareness of how things work in reality, the details of Arlington Road push the boundaries of our capacity to suspend disbelief: artificial twists and turns veer the plot into unexpected directions, and characters manifest sudden and convenient changes of heart. (Yet, however hard to accept, these inconsistent aspects remain at the detail-level. And so, the film avoids creating an overpowering sense of incredulity.)

A cinematic pet peeve of mine, which I have previously written about, is the mishandling of intent. Sometimes, the camera tries a little too hard, purposefully directing the audience’s attention to something it feels is noteworthy, instead of simply observing and letting the audience draw meaning from the frame. This is especially common in thrillers, where storytellers need their audience to get things, and get them fast. Take, for example, an early scene in which Faraday’s students flip through an illustrated history book. While we are unaware of how the pictures connect with the unfolding story, the camera begs us to consider a possible connection. Of course, it is appropriate—if not essential—for a director to have something to say; what I appreciate, though, is when a director trusts me enough to let me come to his or her conclusions on my own, instead of forcing them. Another quibble: Angelo Badalamenti’s score feels too didactic at times, instruments almost barking suggested feelings at the audience. See what just happened there? I should think you are shocked right about now, or ought to be!

Arlington Road also features one scene that does not work on a stylistic level. The film becomes madcap, resorting to tilted-angle shots and supernatural red lighting to provoke unease in the audience. The effect is successful, but this almost dream-like sequence does not belong. Similarly, Martin Scorsese’s unnecessary but still enjoyable remake (1991) of John Lee Thompson’s pitch-perfect Cape Fear (1962) introduces whimsical elements into its otherwise realistic universe—for example, time-lapsed, crimson-colored storm clouds atop immobile, naturally-colored landscapes. In contrast to Arlington Road, these elements belong within the Cape Fear remake because they signal the arrival of Evil incarnate. [In fact, notice how Scorcese’s conceptualization of Max Cady bears a striking resemblance to Reverend Harry Powell in Charles Laughton’s excellent The Night of the Hunter (1955).] Although Oliver Lang is evil, he does not stand in for the Devil himself, as do Reverend Powell and Cady, Redux. Also, Scorsese’s entire approach is aimed at drawing attention to and countering audience expectations—for example, coupling an adaptation of the graceful 1962 score with kinetic (but still traditional) cinematography—whereas Pellington only incorporates such unusual elements on one occasion.

Although these limitations prevent Arlington Road from being considered a top-notch thriller, this does not mean that the film is not worth a low-expectation viewing. It still makes for a fun ride. I simply wish Pellington had chosen to embrace or emulate the best thrillers of the past even if that meant giving us something we have seen before. Instead, he misfires by limiting himself to the ineffectual conventions of second-rate thrillers—although, there are enough clever elements that could allow one to consider Arlington Road a good second-rate film. If you do choose to watch Arlington Road, a word of warning: it is difficult to be fully immune to cheap thrills. In fact, you might respect yourself a little bit less once the credits start rolling. Realizing your emotions were manipulated via clumsy techniques might provoke some embarrassment once you begin thinking about the film. You might even feel a little dirty as you turn on the lights and face the harsh reality that your self-proclaimed acculturation to the fine arts does not stop you from sometimes wearing the trashy garb of a promiscuous cinephile…

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