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Arlington Road

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Oct 27, 2011
Category: Drama

Noon. A suburb of Washington, DC, a street dotted with houses just a shade too small to be McMansions. No one is around.

Wait — here comes someone. A boy. White, of course. About 9 years old. Dressed in jeans and high-top sneakers. Walking unsteadily in the middle of the street. Lurching, really.

And now we see why: blood dots his sneakers, makes a trail on the pavement.  

Luckily, a resident comes along — Michael Faraday (yes, he has the same name as the great scientist who experimented with electricity and magnetism). He scoops the boy up, rushes him to the hospital. Eventually, the boy’s parents show up, grateful beyond measure that the rocket their son set off wasn’t more powerful — and that they have such a good neighbor.

And now we see the opening credits: distorted photos of suburban life. They look anything but peaceful. Clever movie lovers will recall shots like this in David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet.” Clearly, something evil thrives alongside the barbeques.

But how could that be? Faraday (Jeff Bridges) is a history professor who teaches college courses in terrorism. He’s widowed — his wife was an FBI agent, killed in a botched raid — and only recently dating a graduate student (Hope Davis). All he wants is to raise his nine-year-old son and find some peace.

And the neighbors, Oliver Lang (Tim Robbins) and his wife Cheryl (Joan Cusack) couldn’t be nicer. They sense Faraday’s loneliness, and they take steps — inviting him over, including his son in their family outings.

Until, one day…..right, the Langs are too perfect. Faraday senses that when a letter for Lang is wrongly delivered to his mailbox. It’s forwarded from the University of Pennyslvania., Odd. Didn’t Lang say he went to Kansas State?

And so it begins: a neighbor furtively investigating his neighbor. And finding that there’s something wrong in his story, that he may not be who he says he is. [To buy the DVD from Amazon for $8.27, click here. To rent the film and stream it now, click here.]

At the same time, Faraday is teaching his class. That bombing in St. Louis (really, the Oklahoma City bombing). Scary, wasn’t it? But remember how much better you felt the next day, when the FBI produced a single suspect: “We want one man, one name, and we want it fast because we want our security back.”

Here’s the problem with Farraday: He may teach terrorism, but he’s a lousy detective. That is, his suspect knows what’s going on. And confronts him. There’s a scene in Faraday’s back yard that’s as menacing as any conversation on film: Faraday looking at a college year book that proves Lang has changed his name, Lang sneaking up on him. And then the reversal of expectation: It’s Lang who’s mad. Because he has an explanation, a damned good one. And if Faraday only had the decency to ask….

What’s happening? Faraday can’t tell. Is Lang really a structural engineer working on a mall in Reston? Or is he a leader of a terrorist cell plotting mass murder in Washington?

Then Faraday’s girlfriend sees….Then Faraday’s girlfriend rushes to a pay phone…Then Faraday’s girlfriend turns around….

The secret of thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock explained, is to give people a fear bigger than the fears they live with every day. Movies with special effects and ridiculous plots do this poorly. Movies based on brilliant “what ifs?” make you pee your pants. Like “Rosemary’s Baby” — what if a man makes a deal with Satan? Or “Arlington Road” — what if your neighbor is Satan?

There are critics who have called “Arlington Road” overheated and improbable — especially the end. Well, it fooled me. And terrified me. The cinematography, the music, the rising paranoia of Bridges, the spookily friendly Robbins and Cusack: all the elements work together to make you scared of parking lots, mini-vans, the repairman outside your house.

As for the end, it forces you to reexamine everything. Was it just good fortune that the Langs were Faraday’s neighbors? That letter in Faraday’s mailbox — did the mailman do that? Hey, what about their injured son at the beginning — could that be…? For God’s sake, where did this plot begin?

When it’s over, you’ll sit in the dark and shake. “Arlington Road” is that good.