Friday, April 17, 2009

Friday's Featured Film - 4/17/09

New movies are usually released to theaters every Friday, but who’s got 10 bucks these days to drop on a movie that may well be a load of crap? Given those odds, each Friday I offer an alternative on DVD that you can rent at your local video store (or in some cases, avoid at all costs). Some will be new releases, others you may have to hunt for, but all of them are available to light up your small screen should it be a lazy Friday night.

Arlington Road

When my wife and daughter were out of town a couple weekends ago, I got to watch several movies I've been wanting to see as I was hanging out with some friends. One was a movie that my good friend Josh Nelson has been recommending to me for months now - the 1999 thriller Arlington Road. It's a movie that had its ups and downs for me, and it's a tough one to review since much of the film's power (like many thrillers) is due to its twists and turns, but in the end is was an enjoyable, if flawed, bit of filmmaking.

The movie opens with Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges), a widowed college professor and an expert on domestic terrorism, driving down his street and seeing an injured, bleeding boy, whom he takes to the hospital. As the boy recovers, Michael realizes that he is the son of his new neighbors, Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack). Michael, his girlfriend (Hope Davis) and son become fast friends with the Langs, with the two boys becoming increasingly close. However, things begin to unravel for Michael when a series of strange occurrences makes him think that there may be more to his new neighbors than meets the eye. He begins to dig into their past, and despite the skepticism of everyone around him, he believes he has come upon a terrifying secret.

For the first two-thirds of it's running time, Arlington Road is a well-crafted but unspectacular thriller. Director Mark Pellington (The Mothman Prophecies) does a great job of setting an unsettling tone from the opening scene, and he has a knack for making the ordinary feel quite uncomfortable. All the cast seem quite comfortable playing characters that feel very organic for them. Everything feels engaging, but not like anything we haven't seen before. In the movie's final act, two big shifts occur. One feels contrived and over-the-top at first but more understandable in hindsight, and the other is a shocking and incredibly gripping revelation that feels a little less impressive in hindsight. Without giving too much away, the mark of a great twist in a thriller is the ability to rewatch the film to see if the plot holds up. M. Night Shyamalan is the best at this I've seen. His twists are amazing, but they never cheat - in fact, repeat viewings of The Sixth Sense make me wonder how I never saw the twist coming to begin with. While Arlington Road's big twist was fantastic in the moment, the more I think about it the more I seriously doubt its plausibility would hold up under the careful eye of a second viewing. If you've watched the film more than once, let me know your thoughts in the comments (consider this a spoiler warning for the comments if you haven't seen the film). All-in-all, Arlington Road is an entertaining thriller, and while a second viewing may dampen the experience, for me the first was quite a ride. - *** (out of 4)

Arlington Road is rated R for violence and some language.


Darius said...

It's been awhile since I saw it the second time. I do remember really liking it, but I also remember some holes. For one, how did they get that stuff in his trunk? Wasn't it during the time that he and Tim Robbins were fighting? Seemed like they cheated there. I don't remember enough of the movie to think of other stuff... I should watch it again sometime. It was quite good for a thriller.

Kenny Montano said...

I think you're being too kind to this film, maybe because you, as I do, appreciate the fine acting of Robbins, Bridges, Davis, and Cusak. My biggest problem is that Faraday's investigation into Lang's background is hard to accept, depending as it does on vast coincidences. (After he finds an old newspaper article about Lang on the Internet, he journeys to a library and looks up the same material on old-fashioned microfilm, just so Lang can come up behind him and see what he's reading.)

Roger Ebert writes, "To be fair, some of the implausibilities in this stage of the movie can be explained once it is over and we rethink the entire plot. But leave the plot details aside for a second. What about the major physical details of the final thriller scenes? How can anyone, even skilled conspirators, predict with perfect accuracy the outcome of a car crash? How can they know in advance that a man will go to a certain pay phone at a certain time, so that he can see a particular truck he needs to see? How can the actions of security guards be accurately anticipated? Isn't it risky to hinge an entire plan of action on the hope that the police won't stop a car speeding recklessly through a downtown area? It's here that the movie completely breaks down. Yes, there's an ironic payoff, and, yes, the underlying insights of the movie will make you think. But wasn't there a way to incorporate those insights and these well-drawn, well-acted characters into a movie that didn't force the audience to squirm in disbelief? "Arlington Road" is a thriller that contains ideas. Any movie with ideas is likely to attract audiences who have ideas of their own, but to think for a second about the logic of this plot is fatal."

The problem with "Arlington Road," a mystery/thriller about weird neighbors, is that there are no bumps, curves or interesting scenery along the way. Apart from a punch line that will surprise most people – mostly because of its unpredictable silliness – this is a flat, formulaic ride. You can see where you're headed from the get-go.

Although the film starts out with well-mounted menace, "Arlington Road" becomes increasingly overwrought and predictable. The middle and final sections of the movie have been written with less precision, perhaps because the filmmakers assumed the audience would be speeding along too quickly to require credibility. Wrong. This is when credibility really matters.