Talk about your phantom menaces. A paranoid thriller about a conspiracy involving home-grown terrorists, Sony Pictures' "Arlington Road" is scheduled to open domestically May 14 -- five days before you know what -- in a brave but probably doomed counterprogramming move. The gloomy, often powerfully effective film opens today in the United Kingdom.
In his second film, director Mark Pellington
("Going All the Way") has taken on a volatile subject with inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock and Oliver Stone. The result is unsettling because of the often manipulative filmmaking coupled with a fairly plausible premise and scenario. With one of the darkest endings in recent memory, "Arlington" will suffer from dismissive critics and mixed word-of-mouth.
Pellington and crew open the film boldly with an attention-getting moment of horror, when college professor Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) discovers that his neighbor's son (Mason Gamble
) wandering in shock with a badly injured hand. Nearly hysterical himself, Michael rushes the boy to the hospital in time and learns that Brady Lang lives across the street with parents Oliver (Tim Robbins) and Cheryl (Joan Cusack
) and two young sisters.
While screenwriter Ehren Kurger has perhaps worked in one too many topical reference -- including fictional versions of the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing and the Ruby Ridge, Idaho, debacle -- the central gambit of Michael at first liking the Langs and then coming to suspect Oliver of hiding his true nature keeps the film grounded more or less in reality.
Michael is not in the greatest shape. He panics; he imagines too much; he bends the rules to follow a hunch. In a brief visit to the Langs' home, he notices blueprints for a building and gets the idea that Oliver and Cheryl are part of the secret group he believes was responsible for a devastating bombing in St. Louis.
Michael's girlfriend Brooke (Hope Davis) and son Grant Spencer Treat Clark
), who is coping but not happy in the aftermath of a family tragedy, help Michael Keep
it together, but also forsake him when he appears to have misjudged the Langs. Grant becomes friends with Brady and joins a Cub Scout-like group, and the mundane conventions of suburban life are shown as reassuring rituals. But there's an ominous atmosphere that the filmmaking accentuates in a successful attempt to make the viewer constantly on guard and uncomfortable.
Unlike "American History X", the ideology of the right-wing, anti-government characters is not given much attention. What little rhetoric we get is from cagey Oliver and conflicted Michael's lectures on the subject. Indeed, Robbins' performance is the best thing in the film -- with Bridges' a close second -- as the tall guy downplays his charisma and yet exudes menace in many subtle ways, from body language to penetrating gazes to the aggressive way he sidetracks Michael early on by admitting to a criminal act as a teenager.
Michael has a grudge against the FBI for a crucial error that resulted in the death of his wife, an agent. A Peckinpahesque flashback of the shootout is a severe sequence of sickening, up-close-and-personal violence. Bureaucracies and bombers are the enemies. Still friends with an FBI agent (Robert Gossett
) who won't risk his job to help him, Michael on his own investigates Oliver's background and finds several suspicious things, including a name change.
Eventually the noose tightens and Michael's worst fears are realized. The movie steers headlong into an apocalyptic resolution that may not win points for plausibility and coherence but certainly sends one home in a grim mood. The widescreen film is always interesting visually, but Angelo Badalamenti
's uneven score is over-the-top, like too much of the movie.
Sony Pictures Entertainment
Screen Gems presents
In association with Lakeshore Entertainment
A Gorai/Samuelson production
Director: Mark Pellington
Screenwriter: Ehren Kurger
Producers: Peter Samuelson
, Tom Gorai
, Marc Samuelson
Executive producers: Tom Rosenberg
, Sigurjon Sighvatsson
, Ted Tannebaum
Director of photography: Bobby Bukowski
Production designer: Therese Deprez
Editor: Conrad Buff
Costume designer: Jennifer Barrett-Pellington
Music: Angelo Badalamenti
Casting: Ellen Chenoweth
Michael Faraday: Jeff Bridges
Oliver Lang: Tim Robbins
Cheryl Lang: Joan Cusack
Brooke Wolf: Hope Davis
Whit: Robert Gossett
Brady Lang: Mason Gamble
Grant Faraday: Spencer Treat Clark
Dr. Archer Scobee: Stanley Anderson
Running time -- 115 minutes
MPAA rating: R