Saturday, May 7, 2011

Ran Off the Road: "Arlington Road" (1999)

While the original theatrical trailer pretty much gave away the entire plot of this film, I do not want to spoil this for anyone left on earth who has not seen it. Just because I don't like a film doesn't mean I should ruin it for you.

Jeff Bridges, a terrorism expert and college professor, begins to suspect something a little funny about new neighbors Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack. As he begins investigating Robbins, he must convince those around him that none of this has to do with his FBI wife's death in a shootout. Eventually, Bridges suspects Robbins might be a terrorist, and tries to get his new girlfriend and his wife's old boss to believe him. As his son is put in danger, the film winds down to a tense finale with a surprise ending.

In this day and age, terrorism films may seem quaint and uncomfortable. I felt wrong watching this, but because of the script, which somehow won a Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy Awards people. Bridges' character is an intense professor teaching a class on terrorism. In one impossible scene, Bridges takes his class on a field the place where his wife was killed! While the scene is well acted, directed, and edited, this scene put me over the edge of credibility. The film is full of scenes like that.

The script seems to have started with the very good twist ending, and then constructed backward until the story was there, and this is the problem. Watch as Bridges calls up state vital statistics bureaus and gets information right over the phone from name change applications and death certificates. If you have ever done any sort of genealogical research like I have, you would know death certificates must be requested by mail and sent to you after you make a claim as to relationships and reasons behind the search. I wish it were as easy as calling someone up and getting information. Bridges also seems to be making these calls at night, when these state offices would be closed. Bridges' distrust of the FBI because of his wife's death is not explored adequately either, resulting in the viewer just wishing he would tell his suspicions to someone else besides his girlfriend, who finds the absolute weakest reasons not to believe him.

Pellington's direction is excellent, and he somehow manages to build suspense despite the script's shortcomings. Angelo Badalamenti's musical score is perfect. Jeff Bridges is good in a very difficult role that requires this much suspension of belief. He keeps the weaker scenes grounded, since his pain and suspicion is evident on his face. Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack are good, they are really good at playing people who may not be what they seem, but sometimes their innocent act went too far.

"Arlington Road" is a well done film. It is an exciting, well acted film. It can raise questions about how much we really know about people around us, and how far we would go to protect others. It is also not well written, sloppy, and a supreme disappointment.

Do not be so taken with the ending as to ignore the messy hour and a half that came before. The horrible script totally negated any positive aspects I found in "Arlington Road." (*) out of five stars.