Arlington Road

Arlington Road is a perfect title for a paranoia thriller about community mutiny and domestic terrorism – give it a moment and its nuances sink in. Unfortunately, that's the best feature of this purported thriller that toys with social consciousness, civil rights and breaking heads, but doesn't add up to much more than a reactionary, overly mechanistic knock-off of better films.

Unlike so many poor films, you can't identify a single malevolent force which drove Arlington Road to mediocrity. In many similar movies, it's the fact that the characters are wafer-thin, but novice scribe Ehren Kruger circumvents that with dynamite character construction. Both of the movie's stars (Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins) have bravura soliloquies that gel with their complicated characters, but the bulk of their development happens in thoughtful inferences and shadings, not long-winded exposition. Nearly as notable is that no fewer than three of the secondary roles are genuinely well-crafted and realistic.

Kruger's aptitude with plotting, however, are significantly more suspect. The movie's potentially gripping scenario fragments after its first 30 minutes into all the worst chestnuts: more than one element of plot furtherance hinging on right-place right-time coincidence (and one is more than enough); smart characters doing dumb things (the part about Bridges' professor character forgetting his keys is priceless in a worthless kind of way); story information conveyed through television news programs; and four — four! — instances of surprise!-the-bad-guy-is-right-behind-you shocks.

Even kids TV like Goosebumps wouldn't accept stuff this tired, and not recognizing this is director Mark Pellington's (Going All the Way) worst failing. He doesn't wield his self-conscious style like a bludgeon, as many of his peers do, but his style does manage to exacerbate Kruger's weakest material. Witness the "suburban barbecue as hell" sequence that kicks off the last act, a scene intended for tension that left my viewing companion laughing like Richard Widmark on nitrous.

It doesn't surprise that with all of the movie's soggy happenstance and deus ex machina, Arlington Road is a slave to its final plot twist, and even that is lifted from a much better 1974 film. But the finale, "inspired" though it may be, might entertain if the machinery of the rest of the movie weren't so awfully forced. The last act validates a lot of uninteresting story points but negates so much of our understanding of the characters, particularly Robbins', that it feels like nothing so much as a big cheat.

The chief end of this narrative dissatisfaction is that it renders the film unable to deliver any message. It's at its persuasive best when defending the right to privacy, but that's an argument it later refutes. When the smoke clears, all that remains is a misdirected muddle about militias and famlies and the superficial comfort of neighborhoods. If you thought Enemy of the State was a really powerful indictment of covert goverment actions against the populace, then you might get a kick out of Arlington Road, but its only other use is as a study in how a movie with all the right elements can go so wrong.

Flak Magazine, July 5, 1999