Let’s get right to it, shall we. Jeff Bridges. Tim Robbins. Joan Cusack. Arlington Road.
Released in the wake of the Oklahoma City and St Louis bombings, and with numerous other “domestic terrorist” threats and plots still pretty fresh in the minds of the world – however, before the events of 9/11 (which is the only reason the film exists, as I doubt there would be any serious way that a film like this could have been made post-9/11); Arlington Road asks the question “what do you do if you suspect your neighbours are terrorists?” The film tells the story of Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges), a widowed college professor, who begins to suspect that his neighbours, Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack), are members of a domestic terrorist group.
Opening with Faraday helping out what is later revealed to be the Lang’s son, he meet the couple in the hospital and the two families soon find themselves becoming friends. Faraday, who teaches a class called “American Terrorism”, starts to notice things about Oliver that don’t sit right, given his knowledge of the subject of domestic terrorism. He soon finds himself in a “cat and mouse chase” and “deadly web of intrigue” (I have always wanted to use those phrases in a review) trying to prove his thinking correct in the face of disbelief from everyone he confides in, himselfincluded.
The film itself has a very 60s/70s “the government is trying to kill us with conspiracies” feel. This I feel really works, as not only is it an actual conspiracy film, but it does deal with the government – those trying to “overthrow” it, rather than the beast itself. In fact, out of a few uses of modern technology and a few equally modern references, Arlington Road looks like it stepped from that era – I don’t know if this was intentional by the director, but it only serves to help the feel of the film, IMO.
I’ve often said that the scariest villains are those who are convinced that they are doing the right thing, and that fits the archetype of ‘terrorist’ to a T. And to have people with such strong convictions being played as normal everyday members of society gives the Lang’s an extra edge of menace. Now, you’d think that this is a film that would be black and white in its convictions, and, while the terrorist acts themselves are shown as bad things done by people who believe they are doing right, the main characters are shown more in shades of grey. Farraday himself even appears sympathetic to the acts that ultimately lead to the death of his wife.
This is not a film that glorifies terrorists or terrorist acts, rather shows that everyday humans are capable of evil acts, and that is a pretty ‘brave’ stance. Like I said, this is not a film that could have been made post-9/11, given the overall thought of “terrorists are evil, end of story” – sure there have been films that have touched upon these lines of thinking since then, but not to the same centrality of the story as this film.
I don’t think I really need to mention that the two main leads were pulled of brilliantly. Jeff Bridges is one of the best actors alive today, and his spiral into a conspiracy led madness is an absolutely great performance; while Tim Robbins, who is consistently great (he was even the only bright spot in War of The Worlds), shows that he has a real flair for playing understated evil. And Joan Cusack, I am convinced is just a robot, programmed to always be a little off. The best thing about the Langs, to me, is that they are played as human with human reactions, they are played as loving parents, they are played as people who have things to believe in. And as I mentioned above, that is what makes them so terrifying.