Arlington Road

Arlington Road (1999)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Tim Robbins, Hope Davis, Spencer Treat Clark, Joan Cusack
Extras: Commentary Track, Featurette, Deleted Scenes, Trailers

While the genre has been around for a long time, in my opinion it was "The Stepford Wives" that really defined suburban paranoia. That film made the audience realize that nice houses and manicured lawns could be hiding a very sinister evil. Since that time, we have seen a plethora of films that explore the dark things that are happening in the nice homes of upscale subdivisions. There’s even been a spoof of the genre in "The ’Burbs." But, now we have "Arlington Road", a deadly serious film that grabs the suburban paranoia idea by the throat and slams it against the wall. This film leaves its contemporaries far behind by offering a story that is very frighteningly real.

Jeff Bridges stars in "Arlington Road" as Michael Faraday, a college professor and widower. Faraday is still dealing with the death of his wife, an FBI agent who died in a botched investigation of a suspected terrorist. Faraday teaches at George Washington University, and one of his classes focuses on terrorism. He spends his free time with his girlfriend Brooke (Hope Davis) and his son Grant (Spencer Treat Clark).
After a disturbing incident involving their son, Michael meets his new neighbors, the Langs, Oliver (Tim Robbins) and Cheryl (Joan Cusack). Because Olver and Michael are about the same age and they both have 10-year old boys, they become friends.

Oliver claims to be an industrial engineer who has moved to D.C. to work on a shopping mall project. When Michael notices that one of Oliver’s blueprints looks nothing like a shopping mall, he begins to do some snooping into Oliver’s past. Michael begins to uncover some confusing things about Oliver. Is Oliver a terrorist? Or is this just part of the residual terror and anger left over from the death of Michael’s wife? And, if Oliver is a terrorist, is it safe for Grant to be around him? As Michael digs deeper into this mystery, those around him begin to question his sanity.

"Arlington Road" is one of the best movies that I’ve seen in a long time. It has everything — action, suspense, great performances, and an ending that will stick with you for days. The story is expertly crafted and the film gives you just enough information so that you will be wrong at the end and completely shocked. In this age of predictable thrillers (or thrillers where they show you the ending on the preview and people still flock to see it. Hello? "Double Jeopardy?"), it’s very refreshing to see a film that makes no apologies for being powerful and realistic. The screenplay by newcomer Ehren Kruger ("Reindeer Games", "Scream 3") is a true winner and has just the right touch of realism to make the film utterly disturbing.

"Arlington Road" was directed by Mark Pellington who cut his teeth on music videos. He directed Pearl Jam’s "Jeremy" video. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect from him, but he did a superb job on this film. The film is well-paced and at almost two hours, seems to go by very quickly. The film is well-shot and Pellington uses the age-old trick of letting the framing of characters in the shot tell you of their hidden natures. Also, Pellington makes great use of the Panavision frame. He’s not afraid to let things fall outside of the "TV safe" area, framing things similar to the way that John Carpenter does. This framing adds a strong claustrophobic feel to the already intense story.

The other ingredient that makes "Arlington Road" work so well is the performances. Jeff Bridges is great as Michael Faraday. He begins the film as a "normal" suburban dad and ends the film as a man with a life or death mission and during that transition, Bridges doesn’t miss a beat. In a perfect world, this performance would win an Oscar. Tim Robbins is fantastic as the mysterious Oliver. He’s so good in fact, that when I saw him on a talk show a few days later, I thought "I don’t like him. He’s bad." Then I had to say to myself, "No, you’re thinking of his character in the movie." His performance is just that good (and that’s an indicator of how this film stays with you). I’ve always liked Joan Cusack in her comedic roles, but she’s really good here as the oddly cold Cheryl.

"Arlington Road" is being presented on DVD by Columbia TriStar Home Video. The film is <$PS,letterboxed> at 2.35:1 and is <$16x9,16x9 enhanced>. The film looks great, as the picture is very clear and sharp. There is little grain apparent during the film and the source print is free of obvious defects. The film appears to have been framed accurately, as there is no obvious deficit of information at the top or bottom of the screen. Director Pellington has shot the film with a real sense of light and darkness and this comes across very well on the DVD, as this contrasting of colors results in no distortion or over-saturation.

The audio on "Arlington Road" is <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 surround and sounds very good. During the action sequences, the surround sound is very active. More importantly, all of the dialogue in the film is audible and the sound is well-balanced, so there are no drastic volume changes.

The DVD of "Arlington Road" offers some nice features. There is an <$commentary,audio commentary> featuring director Mark Pellington and star Jeff Bridges. This is a good commentary, as both speak throughout the majority of the film. (An interesting side-note: The commentary session is Bridges’ first opportunity to see the finished film.) It’s obvious from this commentary that both are very proud of the film and everyone involved with it. Also, neither Pellington nor Bridges do much to conceal their disappointment that the film didn’t do better at the box office.

The DVD also features an alternate ending for the film, which is introduced by Pellington. Pellington does a good job of explaining why this ending was shot and the process that led to getting rid of it. There is also a 20-minute featurette focusing on the making of the film, which offers many interviews with the cast and a great deal of behind-the-scenes footage, as opposed to footage from the movie that we just watched.

The theatrical trailer for "Arlington Road" is included, and is <$PS,letterboxed> at 1.85:1. There are also trailers for other Jeff Bridges films available from Columbia. The trailer for "Starman" (my favorite Bridges film) is presented full-frame, as is the trailer for "The Last Picture Show."

As I stated earlier, "Arlington Road" is a great movie. I can’t stress that enough. This movie is brutal and uncompromising, but more films need to be that way. Be warned, some people won’t be able to handle the ending, but it’s so refreshing to see a movie end realistically. While "Arlington Road" was overlooked in theatres (why was it released during the summer?), this DVD is a perfect way to experience the film at home. Don’t blow your opportunity to see this great film.