Arlington Road

Directed by Mark Pellington
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, Hope Davis, Robert Gossett.
MPAA Rating: R for violence and some language.

Review by Matt Heffernan
July 10, 1999

Many of today's young directors are coming from a music video background. Videos have replaced short film (and pretty much film musicals, too) in today's culture. However, not all of these directors think they are Alfred Hitchcock.

But I think Mark Pellington might. This is his first attempt at directing a suspense film, and it should only seem obvious that he would be most influenced by The Master. Arlington Road is the kind of film Hitchcock would do today. It involves paranoia and contains many sharp turns in the plot. In fact, some elements of it reminded me of Spellbound, Suspicion, and Rear Window. Pellington should learn, though, that you can't beat Hitch at his own game (for that matter, so should Gus Van Sant -- yet another MTV veteran).

The film starts, before the credits, with a boy walking down a suburban street in a daze and bleeding. Jeff Bridges, playing George Washington University professor Michael Faraday, nearly runs him over, then takes him to the emergency room. After the credits, we find out that his name is Brady Lang (Mason Gamble) and he actually lives across the street from Michael, with his parents Oliver and Cheryl (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack). Michael has a son, Grant (Spencer Treat Clark), who is about Brady's age, and they become close friends after Brady comes home from the hospital.

For some reason, Michael is almost immediately suspicious of his neighbor, Oliver. Something doesn't seem quite right with him, and soon Michael discovers some strange things. Oliver is supposedly an engineer working on a shopping mall, but Michael sees a portion of the blueprints at his house, and sees that they are really for an office building. Later he gets mail meant for Oliver that was forwarded from his old address in St. Louis. The letter was sent from UPenn, but Oliver said that he went to Kansas State and never lived on the east coast before moving to the Washington, DC area.

Michael becomes obsessed with researching Oliver's background. He suspects that Oliver might be involved with an anti-government terrorist organization. After all, he does teach a class about terrorism. Of particular interest to him are two events (based on real-life events) that are involved with the story of the film. One of them resulted in the shooting death of his wife, an FBI agent.

This film builds suspense in the same way that Hitchcock did: tense dialogue that slowly reveals the motivations of the characters. Pellington learned from watching his movies that you can't just jump from one action scene to the next, with quick little two-line scenes in between. Characters need to be devoloped and the actions need to be justified. But Pellington is still in the learning process. He needs to refine his own style and learn how to better structure a film.

He does manage to get individual scenes right, but the film is a little overlong and drags a while before the climactic ending. I see some great potential, and perhaps he will someday make a great film. As for the actors, he certainly chose a terrific cast. Jeff Bridges is always a strong leading man and Tim Robbins plays the part of the mysterious stranger quite well. Joan Cusack turns in another good performance, but she was pretty much wasted. Her part was rather small and didn't allow her much room to flesh it out more.

Arlington Road certainly has its moments, and is good for a few goose bumps and a couple jumps. It is also refreshing to see a film that is intelligent enough to not take the easy way out by having everybody shoot at each other to resolve the tension. Of course, Hitch figured out how to do that a long time ago. Most directors just forgot.

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Arlington Road (1999)

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Review © 1999 Matt Heffernan