In an era when plot construction has become almost a forgotten craft in mainstream film, "Arlington Road" offers one of the densest thrillers in recent memory, rife with complicated switchbacks and concluding with a zinger surprise ending. Ehren Kruger's clever and cold-hearted script about a bereaved college professor who begins to suspect that his neighbors are terrorists is built around the fundamental paranoia of American life, especially suburban American life.
But the almost diabolical canniness of Kruger's screenplay, and director Mark Pellington's skill with claustrophobic overexposures and extreme close-ups, aren't enough to make "Arlington Road" seem like a movie about human beings. Instead, it's a dank, mechanical exercise that refuses to have any fun. As with almost any thriller made in the last 30 years or so, the oversized specter of Alfred Hitchcock -- mostly "Shadow of a Doubt" and "The Man Who Knew Too Much" -- haunts "Arlington Road," and that's really not a good thing. Hitchcock's many imitators have generally learned the wrong lessons from him. Rather than seeking to understand the roots of his misanthropy and misogyny, they have adopted them as a matter of style, along with the most sadistic elements of his ambivalent relationship with his audience. The result, in a case like "Arlington Road," is a movie where style and craft are fatally confused with substance, and where almost no effort is made to make the characters seem like believable people.
As if aware that Kruger and Pellington have him pinned down in an untenable position, Jeff Bridges begins the movie by bellowing in bug-eyed panic and outrage, and pretty much never turns down the volume right through to the explosive climax. Even good actors like Bridges and Tim Robbins need an authority figure to rein in their carpet-chewing instincts, and Pellington -- whose only previous major feature was the 1997 sex comedy "Going All the Way" -- gives no indication that he's capable of doing so. (You could never have said that about Hitchcock, who for all his coldness and concern with cinematic technique had a brilliant understanding of actors and acting.)
Bridges is Michael Faraday, a history professor at George Washington University who's become increasingly obsessed with right-wing terrorism since his FBI agent wife was killed in a botched raid on a West Virginia survivalist encampment (an incident similar to the Ruby Ridge fiasco in Idaho). Michael's pleasant brick house in the Virginia suburbs does little to mask his anarchic, unstable life. His 10-year-old son, Grant (Spencer Treat Clark), has retreated into his own world since his mother's death, and has established an exceedingly uneasy peace with Brooke (Hope Davis), the whiny and rather dense grad student who is dad's new live-in companion. I've liked Davis pretty well in other films, but I might go crazy too if I had to live with Brooke, a mottle-faced chronic complainer who acts as if she recently arrived here from the '50s and wishes she could go back.
After Michael rescues 10-year-old Brady Lang (Mason Gamble), a neighbor's kid whom he finds wandering down the street with mysterious burn injuries, he has a crisis of civic-duty conscience and resolves to befriend the boy's parents. Needless to say, wholesome Oliver and Cheryl Lang -- the first new friends Michael and Brooke have made as a couple -- are not quite what they appear to be. Although "Arlington Road" is superficially opposed to the ultra-right conspiracy it depicts, it's worth noting that its underlying message is profoundly reactionary: Michael would have been better off if he'd locked his door and let the kid die in the street.
Oliver is played by Robbins, employing his now-familiar repertoire of sinister-sincere Middle American tics and gestures, and Cheryl by Joan Cusack, who is creepily effective in a series of Stepford-femme costumes. This pair is fun to watch -- Oliver is full of pedestrian Pol Pot wisdom along the lines of "We're never more wise than when we're children," and Cheryl seems more and more like an intentional Nancy Reagan parody -- but they hide their evil intentions about as effectively as Boris and Natasha do on "The Bullwinkle Show." Next to Bridges, however, who flaps his outsized, sweat-soaked frame from one scene of hollering and ranting to another in what most be the least disciplined performance of his career, Robbins and Cusack are models of actorly restraint.
The plot will indeed keep you guessing, and its final switchback is almost worthy of such staples of '70s paranoia as "Taxi Driver" and "The Parallax View." It rapidly becomes clear that the shadowy Langs are in the D.C. area to launch a major attack on the U.S. government, but their devious plot, and Michael's role in it, is well concealed. In true imitation-Hitchcock fashion, it's laced with hidden documents, swapped packages, dual identities, old college yearbooks, kidnappings, vehicular confusion, a throbbing electronic score (from Angelo Badalamenti of "Twin Peaks" fame) and some female casualties. I especially enjoyed the suggestion that a youth organization very much like the Boy Scouts is actually a clandestine recruiting tool used by the militia wackos to pry kids loose from their families.
In current parlance, the signal-to-noise ratio in "Arlington Road" eventually deteriorates to the point where there's no signal at all, only some flashy, entertaining noise. When Michael blunders into a party where the nutso conspirators are cheerfully downing piqa coladas and dancing to K.C. and the Sunshine Band, the movie seems for a few moments to leave any pretense of realism or seriousness behind. That would have been a better approach from the outset; "Arlington Road" spends far too much time squirming around in search of meaning, like some rowdy little kid dressed up in grown-up clothes and told to behave. Kruger's evident talent for outrageous plotting ought to be better served in his screenplays for less sober efforts like John Frankenheimer's upcoming "Reindeer Games" and Wes Craven's "Scream 3." For all the talent involved in its production, "Arlington Road" is ultimately just another maddeningly ill-conceived tribute placed at the fat man's feet.