I’ve written about this brilliant film numerous times but that’s not going to stop me from doing it again. Simply put, Arlington Road is one of the most dynamic political thrillers ever made, a film that would never get produced and released in today’s current social landscape, and without question, it sits on the top shelf with other notable genre entries including Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View. A true product of the late 90’s and partially born out of the Oklahoma City bombing which had occurred just four years prior, it’s one of the best films from the decade that really stuck to the devious twist ending (Fincher’s 90’s trio of Seven, The Game, and Fight Club all come to mind), and now that we all live in the ghost of 9/11, a film with as downbeat of an ending such as this one feels almost novel and antique, let alone remotely possible. The prevalence of the cinematic antihero took a backseat in the early 2000’s in the wake of the terrorist attack in NYC, but we’re starting to see a resurgence of that theme; Arlington Road feels like the work of prescient filmmakers who took real life events, looked at them for the root cause of their evil, and showcased a phenomenal two-hander between neighbors who are living on entirely separate ends of the political and mental spectrum. This is a film that still stings with a serious force, delivering an ending as diabolical, clever, and haunting as the final moments of Seven (yes…really!). Mark Pellington’s unnerving, nervy, visually arresting direction created a thriller that deserves serious reconsideration as a stellar example of a genre picture that transcends its root elements, especially given the last 15 years of worldwide social turmoil, violence, and unrest. Released in the summer of 1999, this was more of an October movie, and it was lost among the blockbusters of the season, despite some passionate critical notices and vocal support from ecstatic admirers. I can remember going to a test screening of this film, and sitting in the theater totally riveted, and then being positively blown away when the final scene unfolded and the credits began to run.
Starring Jeff Bridges as a paranoid college professor who starts to suspect that his post-card-perfect neighbors are domestic terrorists (the chilling Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack as his ominous wife), Arlington Road has a zero-fat screenplay written with care and intelligence by Ehren Kruger, and was directed with pulse-quickening panache by Pellington, who also crafted the underrated chiller The Mothman Prophecies, the charming 50’s set drama Going All the Way, the quirky spiritual comedy Henry Poole Is Here, and the little seen but extraordinarily intense male weepie I Melt With You, which plays like a heightened version of the landmark 1970’s picture Husbands crossed with the early-80’s relic The Big Chill. He’s an eclectic filmmaker who stems from the music video world, someone who always has an interesting story to tell, and it’s a shame that he didn’t become more prolific after Arlington Road busted him out of the gate. And it’s just beyond shocking to think that Kruger, who exhibited so much promise with this amazingly calibrated screenplay which double backed on itself in the final reel (only inviting closer scrutiny), would then go on to churn out one piece of forgettable crap after another, with only a few exceptions (The Ring, The Skeleton Key). He’s been responsible for a literal roll-call of poorly structured movies with inane dialogue (The Transformers series, Reindeer Games, Impostor, The Ring 2, Blood & Chocolate, and The Brothers Grimm, which was barely salvaged from total train-wreck status by director Terry Gilliam and his usual brand of visual lunacy), ultimately becoming the ultimate paycheck whore. And while that’s good for him and his bank account, it’s robbed him of any sense of class or dignity. And it’s head-scratching because only an individual with clear talent could have devised a script as scary and as smart as Arlington Road.
The explosive opening moments with Bridges trying to help an unknown child who has had their hand blown off in an unseen accident are the stuff of genuine nightmares, and the way that Kruger kept piling on the surprises and twisting the screws within the narrative all the way until the end literally makes this an edge of your seat thriller, especially for the uninitiated. The opening credits are very stylish, casually evoking the trendsetting title sequence of Seven (also designed by Kyle Cooper), but still being its own thing, with tomandandy and Angelo Badalamenti’s creepy score immediately setting the mood. Bobby Bukowski’s crisply composed and tightly coiled 2.35:1 widescreen cinematography makes great use of open space in some instances, and then gets up close and personal when the situation calls for it, and in tandem with Conrad Buff’s razor-sharp editing, Arlington Road hurtles through a series of increasingly sketchy events all the way up to a tragic and devastating conclusion. Cusack and Hope Davis share a now famous telephone booth scene that’s still creepy to this day, and the way that Pellington, Kruger, and everyone involved at the studio level didn’t wimp out during the final act when push came to shove still has to be applauded. And the idea that Jeff Bridges delivered this sweaty, unhinged, emotionally distressed performance directly after his legendary, stonerific work in The Big Lebowski is a further testament to his unending talent. And to think – he’d go on a year later to play the coolest President of the United States in Rod Lurie’s underrated and fantastic The Contender! He’s one of our great acting talents, capable of anything, always ready to surprise.
Now – FULL SPOILER WARNING – it’s almost inconceivable to think that studios and audiences would be down for the finale that Arlington Road presents these days. In one of the greatest bits of pull-the-rug out-from-underneath-you madness, the film ends with Robbins’s domestic terror attack actually succeeding, and not only is it a triumph, but the otherwise heroic Bridges becomes named as the chief architect of the entire plan, showing how Robbins had been playing and courting Bridges the entire time, turning him into an unwilling and unwitting accomplice. Yes, a lot of stuff has to happen during the final act for all of the pieces of the puzzle to come together the way the filmmakers want them too, but who cares – this is a movie, a fiendishly constructed one, and something with this sort of audacity has to be complemented. I love movies like this and The Game and Stay and Running Scared and Unbreakable and Fight Club and The Prestige, films that have one final tick up their sleeve at the end that puts everything into fresh perspective (sometimes multiple perspectives) and leaves you with that special feeling of having your mind shattered in all the ways made possible by great cinema. And then, to add insult to injury, not only is Bridges a national disgrace in his death, but his son is shuttled off to “live with relatives,” without the knowledge of anything that his father tried to do to stop the explosion from happening. Throughout the years, the climax of Arlington Road has been the subject of endless debate, with some being positively infuriated over the idea of the bad guy winning (and thoroughly destroying his opponent!) while others have embraced the unsettling implications of the plot and the notion that sometimes, evil does find a way of succeeding. It feels unlikely that a big-star project like this one could get made in today’s hypersensitive climate, especially in light of the failure of something like the ultra-nihilistic The Counselor; only an independent production could pull this sort of thing off nowadays. Arlington Road has integrity and a confidence that backs up its twisty and twisted narrative, so that when all of the pieces to the complex puzzle arrive, not only does everything fit, you don’t feel cheated, but rather, exhilarated.