Arlington Road
directed by Mark Ellington
(Screen Gems, 1999)

In 1974, director Alan Pakula scared the pants off viewers with The Parallax View, a tale of political conspiracy and cover-up. Twenty-five years later, Mark Pellington attempted much the same feat in Arlington Road, but left audiences' wardrobes sadly intact.

It's not that Arlington Road doesn't have a lot going for it. It has a wonderful cast, headed by Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack, and a terrifying opening, in which a boy who looks suspiciously like Robbins staggers down the middle of a quiet suburban street, his eyes rolled back in his head, blood dripping onto his sneakers from part or parts unknown.

But shortly thereafter it sinks into a vat of cliches deeper than the conspiracy it's determined to unravel.

Michael Faraday (Bridges) is a history prof at George Washington University, where he teaches a course in terrorism and the American underground. It's no coincidence that this is his area of expertise: Faraday's wife, an FBI Agent, was killed in a Ruby Ridge-like assault (here called Copper Creek to maintain the alliteration).

Since then, Bridges has found it tough going with his son, Grant (Spencer Treat Clark), who misses his mom and resents Faraday's new girlfriend, Brooke (Hope Waters). That all seems to change when Faraday saves the life of neighbor child Brady Lang (Mason Gamble) and is drawn into the lives of Brady's parents, Oliver (Robbins) and Cheryl (Cusack).

But it doesn't change for the better. Faraday soon begins to suspect that Lang isn't what -- or even who -- he claims to be. And before long, Faraday is investigating Lang in ways that are guaranteed to send chills up your spine and provide the film the few bright spots it has.

Five years ago, when Waco, Ruby Ridge and the Oklahoma bombing were fresh in audiences' minds, Arlington Road might have made a more fit subject for a paranoiafest. Even then, however, it would have had problems.

Faraday doesn't teach his classes so much as preach to them about the evils of terrorism, and it's clear from the beginning that there is something deeply wrong with the Langs.

Robbins and Cusack play the parents more like zombie-eyed villagers of the damned than northern Virginia neighbors from small-town Kansas. And the Junior Discoverers troop Grant joins at their behest looks like it's about to break into "Deutschland Uber Alles" at any second.

On top of all that, Arlington Road features a screeching sound track that leaves no tone unturned in its determination to milk viewers' feelings for all they're worth.

The result: Arlington Road hits home with all the subtlety of a ball-peen hammer, but none of the effectiveness.

Pakula understood that to produce real feelings of paranoia, he had to make the audience doubt the protagonist as much as it did the forces he was up against.

In Pellington's film, there's never any doubt about anyone. Except Pellington.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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