Courtesy Photo
*** stars 117 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, July 9, 1999
Directed by Mark Pellington

Starring Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, Hope Davis, Robert Gossett, Gamble, Spenser Treat Clark & Stanley Anderson


Neo-classic conspiracy/terrorism flick, "Arlington" hasn't gotten the recognition it deserves as a smart, twist-filled thriller. It may be no "Manchurian Candidate" but beats the snot out of "Consiracy Theory," etc. Full atmosphere is important, so get wide-screen version if you can.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 10/26/99

Mark Pellington:
"Going All The Way" (1997)

Jeff Bridges:
"The Big Lebowski (1998)
"The Mirror Has Two Faces" (1996)

Joan Cusack:
"Grosse Pointe Blank" (1997)
"In & Out" (1997)

Hope Davis:
"The Impostors" (1998)
"Next Stop Wonderland" (1998)
 + interview

Robert Gossett:
"The Net" (1995)

Powerful political thriller's script so airtight hero has to make mistakes to advance the plot

By Rob Blackwelder

There's just one thing standing in the way of "Arlington Road" taking a place among the best film noir politics-and-paranoia thrillers -- the script is so tight that the hero is forced to make a dumb mistake now and again to advance the plot.

That hero is Jeff Bridges, playing a West Virginia history professor who obsesses over his class in domestic terrorism because it doubles as a form of therapy while grieving for his dead wife -- an FBI agent killed in a botched, Ruby Ridge-like raid.

He's a guy doesn't trust the government one bit, and in his class sermonizes that federal and extremist conspiracies abound and that the lone psycho theory applied to most American terrorists is a ruse by the feds to lull the populace into feeling safe again in the wake of tranquillity-shattering attacks.

But after rescuing a neighborhood kid from a fireworks accident (an event that is grossly overplayed in the opening scene to set the audience on edge), his suspicious mind begins dissecting the boy's conspicuously average parents (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack), based on scraps of information he's culled about them -- like the fact that Robbins, an architect, claims to be working on a shopping mall but won't show anyone the plans.

Is the class he teaches getting to his head, as his ex-grad student girlfriend (Hope Davis) insists? Or are his so-normal-it's-creepy neighbors hiding something big?

After sleuthing around in Robbins past, Bridges discovers a background of radical politics, a felony bomb-making conviction and a dubious name change, and this is where the dumb mistakes start to kick in.

Directed by Mark Pellington ("Going All The Way") with fantastic, classic noir stylings and written by feature rookie Ehren Kruger, "Arlington Road" is mathematical in its paranoid precision and positively packed with twists.

But its plot points fit so snugly together that in order for the movie to accelerate, Bridges character -- the kind of guy who turns off the lights and closes the blinds before searching the internet for mentions of his new friend -- has to, for example, get caught snoozing in his back yard, in broad daylight, with Robbins high school yearbook on his lap, open to the page showing him before he changed his name. This leads to a confrontation that shakes Bridges convictions and sets the tone for a frightening performance of enigmatic duality by Robbins.

But while Pellington leaves the door open for other explanations of Robbins' apparently covert activities, he does not let even the most innocuous scene slide by without frontloading it with insinuating tension. Even a scene between the uncomfortable neighbors' sons hints at something sinister. Fortifying a kitchen table like kids playing war are wont to do, Robbins' boy doesn't call their creation a fort or a hideout -- he calls it a compound.

As the ever-more-suspicious prof, Bridges never unknits his eyebrows for a moment (which is a little tiresome, but it gets the point across). His paranoid curiosity becomes panic-stricken desperation in the last few reels as his son disappears and he tries to convince his wife's ex-partner at the FBI of a terrorist plot he has yet to fully realize himself.

Along the way more unexpected twists befall Davis (the girlfriend), Cusack (who manages this dexterous balance of sugar-cookie malevolence) and students in Bridges class, all leading up to an shocking Washington, D.C., climax so insidious and deviously derived that it might not sit well with the faint of heart.

Ultimately, the impermeable way "Arlington Road" resolves every minute detail in the finale makes up for its few mistakes. It's a daring, scary political thriller with a lingering psychological effect that keeps the outcome spiraling around your mind as you retrace the steps of the plot, looking for loose ends or a way the culmination of events might have been changed. You won't find any. But just the fact that you leave the movie engrossed in thought is reason enough to see it. Especially at a time when many of your other box office options are below-average summer dreck.


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