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Friday, April 2, 1999

'ARLINGTON ROAD'

Fear and loathing in surburbia


I'm not sure if it was the creepy poster ads, or the stalker-style opening credits by designer Kyle Cooper ("Seven"), but whatever it was, I was fully expecting yet another serial killer flick when I sat back to watch "Arlington Road."

Viewing the film's eerie opening scene -- in which a dazed child stumbles down deserted suburban streets, bleeding from a mangled arm -- didn't dispel such notions. But 10 minutes later, the film obviously seemed to be moving in another direction entirely. Where it was going, I wasn't sure, but it was a real treat to not know what ride it was taking me on.

Suffice it to say, "Arlington Road" was a tense and surprising enough thriller to keep me guessing till the last frames rolled. And that is true praise indeed: Most movies these days, with their bare-all trailers and overbearing hype, have you feeling like you've already experienced the film before you've even seen it.

Often ignorance is indeed bliss. Take "The Truman Show," for example. An entertaining film, to be sure, but think how much more fun it would have been had you not known from the outset that Jim Carrey was living inside a TV set? Or "Psycho," if you had no clue that Norman Bates was bad news? Sometimes movies are in fact more cleverly plotted than we give them credit for, but -- like kids peeking into carefully wrapped gifts -- we ruin our own surprises.

As a reviewer, I have to acknowledge that I'm part of this problem. After giving it some thought, I decided that there's no way "Arlington Road" would be half as interesting if you knew the direction the story was taking, so don't expect the usual plot synopsis here. What I can tell you is this: In the vast and sucking tar pit of half-baked conspiracy films, "Arlington Road" is one of the few that is tight, clever and frighteningly plausible.

It's also one of those films that has a dodgy protagonist who unravels on screen, leaving us wondering if he's justifiably paranoid or certifiably insane. In that role -- and hence making the film eminently watchable -- is Jeff Bridges. He plays a liberal college professor, a single father who's dating a grad student and teaching a somewhat radical course on terrorism. Nevertheless, he's living a fairly quiet suburban life, still plagued by grief over his wife's death in an incident that is only slowly revealed.

It's hard to pinpoint, but there's something about Bridges -- his slightly weathered looks, his laconic Californian cadences or perhaps (like Peter Falk) his ability to look "rumpled" -- that gives him an easy air of everyman believability that most Hollywood stars can never hope to attain. Perhaps it's because he's never had that one defining iconic role, but Bridges is the kind of guy you can really imagine getting up and going to work in the morning, and looking like a schlep because he didn't get enough sleep.

Whether he's ranting in the classroom, or weeping over the memory of his wife, there's not a moment here where he's anything less than convincing. He makes us utterly sympathetic with his anti-establishment prof, but the undercurrent of anger he feels toward the government is troubling -- is it just an academic viewpoint, or is it an obsession?

Opposite Bridges is the consistently excellent Tim Robbins, playing a next-door neighbor who appears to be a bland "Honey, I'm home" kind of guy, but this is undercut by his reticent ways and constant scowl. Bridges begins to scratch the surface, but is there any basis to his suspicion, or has he been teaching conspiracy for so long that he's now deluding himself? Robbins is a bit too deliberately manipulative here for his own good, but he'll probably leave you guessing more than once.

This is the second feature by Mark Pellington, one of a handful of new directors (along with "Seven's" David Fincher) to emerge from the once barren world of music video. While he displays some neat stylistic moves of his own, the influence of David Lynch is apparent: There's the Angelo Badalamenti soundtrack, and the virulent dark side of suburbia that exists just around the corner from little league games and backyard barbecues. But unlike Lynch -- and, for that matter, most filmmakers in the U.S. -- Pellington and screenwriter Aaron Kruger place the evil within a political context.

One could say that this is only natural, as in the '90s, America has most definitely seen the emergence of the enemy within. Unlike "The X-Files," however, Pellington presents the threat as something horrifyingly evil in its ordinariness, a tumor of terror that can grow just down the block, in the most normal of neighborhoods. It's not quite Costa-Gavras, but "Arlington Road" is still a very confident sophomore effort from a director to watch. Look for Pellington's debut, the '97 Sundance hit "Going All the Way" -- with Ben Affleck, Jeremy Davies ("Saving Private Ryan"), and Rachel Weisz ("I Want You") -- to open later this summer.

"Arlington Road" opens from mid-April at Shibuya Joy Cinema and other theaters.


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