There's just one thing standing in the way of "ArlingtonRoad" taking a place among the best film noir politics-and-paranoiathrillers -- the script is so tight that the hero is forced to make a dumbmistake now and again to advance the plot.
That hero is Jeff Bridges, playing a West Virginia historyprofessor who obsesses over his class in domestic terrorism because itdoubles as a form of therapy while grieving for his dead wife -- an FBIagent killed in a botched, Ruby Ridge-like raid.
He's a guy doesn't trust the government one bit, and inhis class sermonizes that federal and extremist conspiracies abound andthat the lone psycho theory applied to most American terrorists is a ruseby the feds to lull the populace into feeling safe again in the wake oftranquillity-shattering attacks.
But after rescuing a neighborhood kid from a fireworksaccident (an event that is grossly overplayed in the opening scene to setthe audience on edge), his suspicious mind begins dissecting the boy'sconspicuously average parents (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack), based on scrapsof information he's culled about them -- like the fact that Robbins, anarchitect, claims to be working on a shopping mall but won't show anyonethe plans.
Is the class he teaches getting to his head, as his ex-gradstudent girlfriend (Hope Davis) insists? Or are his so-normal-it's-creepyneighbors hiding something big?
After sleuthing around in Robbins past, Bridges discoversa background of radical politics, a felony bomb-making conviction and adubious name change, and this is where the dumb mistakes start to kickin.
Directed by Mark Pellington ("Going All The Way") with fantastic, classic noirstylings 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 orderfor the movie to accelerate, Bridges character -- the kind of guy who turnsoff the lights and closes the blinds before searching the internet formentions of his new friend -- has to, for example, get caught snoozingin his back yard, in broad daylight, with Robbins high school yearbookon his lap, open to the page showing him before he changed his name. Thisleads to a confrontation that shakes Bridges convictions and sets the tonefor a frightening performance of enigmatic duality by Robbins.
But while Pellington leaves the door open for other explanationsof Robbins' apparently covert activities, he does not let even the mostinnocuous scene slide by without frontloading it with insinuating tension.Even a scene between the uncomfortable neighbors' sons hints at somethingsinister. Fortifying a kitchen table like kids playing war are wont todo, Robbins' boy doesn't call their creation a fort or a hideout -- hecalls it a compound.
As the ever-more-suspicious prof, Bridges never unknitshis eyebrows for a moment (which is a little tiresome, but it gets thepoint across). His paranoid curiosity becomes panic-stricken desperationin the last few reels as his son disappears and he tries to convince hiswife's ex-partner at the FBI of a terrorist plot he has yet to fully realizehimself.
Along the way more unexpected twists befall Davis (thegirlfriend), Cusack (who manages this dexterous balance of sugar-cookiemalevolence) and students in Bridges class, all leading up to an shockingWashington, D.C., climax so insidious and deviously derived that it mightnot 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 psychologicaleffect that keeps the outcome spiraling around your mind as you retracethe steps of the plot, looking for loose ends or a way the culminationof events might have been changed. You won't find any. But just the factthat 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-averagesummer dreck.