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.