Arlington Road (1999)

D: Mark Pellington
S: Tim Robbins, Jeff Bridges, Joan Cusack

Gripping thriller which pits suburban-dwelling American academic Jeff Bridges against Tim Robbins, his architect neighbour who may or may not be a right wing terrorist living under cover with his seemingly ordinary family. Bridges, whose FBI wife was killed in a Ruby Ride type shoot out several years before and who teaches a course on contemporary American politics at Washington University with a focus on terrorism becomes obsessed with discovering the truth, but at what cost to his relationships and to his neighbour's right to privacy?

Though Ehren Kruger's script eventually plays out as a variant on The Parallax View, the film owes equal debts to the late Alan J. Pakula's lesser work Consenting Adults, especially in its portrayal of suburban America. Beginning with a surreal slow-motion sequence which depicts a young boy walking along a quiet street dripping blood on his sneakers from an unseen wound, the film uses its bland and tranquil locations to set up a dynamic between normalcy and deviance, though it is careful to ensure the audience is never sure which is which. Its depiction of the rituals and conventions of middle class society frequently takes on an eerie quality which finally explodes at a night-time party being held at Robbins' house into which Bridges blunders in the grip of paranoia and claustrophobia.

Bridges seems initially to be the hero, and this suspicion is confirmed when it becomes increasingly obvious that Robbins is more than what he pretends to be. Yet it is Bridges who behaves erratically and becomes emotionally unstable, pushing the limits of the liberty upon which he lectures in an attempt to justify himself and perhaps do justice to his dead wife's memory. Kruger plays with our identification with hero and villain, forcing us to question which is which depending not only on our political sympathies, but our generic understanding of heroic/villainous behaviour. Robbins is consistently polite and considerate, and is introduced to us as a grateful and frightened father (it is his son who has been injured in the opening and who is taken to hospital by Bridges). Bridges meanwhile goes further and further off the rails until by the end he is a demented wreck, unshaven, wild-eyed and overwrought. This also has some precedent in Warren Beatty's characterisation of Joe Frady in The Parallax View, and one wonders if it is a co-incidence that Bridges' character is named Michael Faraday, which adds only two 'a's to the surname.

The film plays out well enough on an emotional level, but it is not necessarily matched with the kind of vision of society which characterised Pakula's best works and which give such thrillers a grounding in reality. Arlington Road plants its flag firmly in the midst of contemporary American political unrest, and is full of fleeting references to Waco, Oklahoma and the rise of the extreme right. It tries to penetrate the mind of its hero and does attempt to give him some kind of roots as a liberal bourgeois intellectual whose exposure to real life horror threatens to unhinge him. Yet Robbins remains unsatisfactorily aloof, and the plot device which has his character move from place to place prevents a sense of his point of view from evolving fully. Some reference is made to his growing up in Kansas, and there are one or two small speeches which seem to suggest something about his motivations, but they may all be part of an elaborate bluff. The film becomes psychologically subjective when it should be objective and rational, matching Bridges hysteria with an increasingly frantic chase-based climax. Robbins becomes merely another part of the mental scenario, and his real-world context is lost to what seems like contrivance.

On the whole director Mark Pellington succeeds in covering up for this shortcoming with direction which calls to mind the film's 1970s forebears. Many scenes are shot in widescreen compositions which make the environment integral to character development. It is in this way that it manages to incorporate ideas about suburbia and the state of America's sense of itself as a safe haven for old-fashioned values such as freedom and justice. Robbins' office is decorated with images of great democratic monuments, his spacious back yard is home to a traditional barbecue and wooden fence right out of primal 1950s fantasies, Bridges falls asleep in his own garden framed against green grass and a blue sky which seems to suggest an idealised vision of America in which difficult realities are about to rear their heads.

This interplay between ideals and realities extends to its configuration not only of large-scale social forces (terrorism vs. due process, right versus left), but of personal relationships. Its focus upon Bridges and lover Hope Davis allows the film to chart the disintegration of a loving relationship in the face of past trauma and present anxiety (thereby, of course, mirroring developments in political history). Bridges' deep-seated unresolved feelings for his own wife damage his ability to relate to Davis. His obsession with Robbins is a manifestation of his inability to let go of the past. Given the potential importance of learning the truth about him however, the irony of this is that it returns the viewer again to weighing issues of just how important the individual is over society and of what is the exact relationship between them. Meanwhile Robbins' personal relationships seem centred on ideas of protection, responsibility, and justice, and the rather underused Joan Cusack's collaboration as his wife is suggested but made ambiguous by her final spoken dialogue. Again the mindset of the American right is in question, though its exploration is not as thorough as it might have been (its suggestion that the boy scouts is a crypto-fascist organisation for recruiting young minds to fascism is perhaps a little unfair though it works as a dramatic contrivance).

On the whole Arlington Road is thoughtful and provocative. It is involving and well acted, and aided by a score by Angelo Badalamenti, it rises to some exciting moments. It is not quite as well worked on a deeper level as it could have been, though there is plenty going on under the surface to keep discussion going afterwards. It is refreshing though to see a film follow the lead of the more despairing and restrained thrillers of the 1970s than the blockbusters of more recent years, if only because it gives the film an edge of authenticity which many of its contemporaries lack. Of course it is still quite a distance from its predecessors, and despite its much talked about ending, it is never as chilling as it seems to have hoped it might be. Viewers familiar with film history will find themselves inevitably thinking of The Parallax View throughout the final scenes, which adds an extra level of speculation ("will they or won't they?"). Unfortunately the comparison highlights the relative poverty of Arlington Road where it really counts despite its many interesting points. It does eventually surrender to hyperkenetic overstatement and it drives home its ironies with rather too much force to be effective.

It is worth seeing, but is best understood relative to its own generic roots rather than the society it purports to represent, which is an inevitable weakness of postmodern cinema. Most viewers won't mind this, and if the film does succeed in raising some questions about contemporary America, then it serves its purpose regardless of whether or not it has quite the depth required to survive in the annals of film history.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.