These people have to live somewhere. Like the mass murderers who are finally discovered, with their neighbors interviewed in front of television cameras ("He seemed like a nice-enough guy . . . kind of quiet, kept to himself"), terrorists that Homeland Security say live in "cells" don't just have group condos specially designed for twisted Unibomber types. They live among us.
That's the chilling departure point for "Arlington Road." They could be right across the street. And they are. The way this is set up, from the beginning we suspect that Oliver Lang and his wife, Cheryl (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack), are involved in something more than youth soccer or the PTA. But like those "Columbo" episodes where we learn the identity of the murderer in the opening sequence, the tension here comes from our seeing and knowing things before the hero does.
Ehren Kruger has written a simple yet effective screenplay that gives director Mark Pellington plenty of chances to reinforce the tension. In fact, you have great expectations for the film when the pre-title sequence is so strong. At first we see just feet crossing in front of each other, half-walking, half-staggering down the middle of a road. Then we see it's a boy. Then we see Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) behind the wheel and stopping his car to investigate and offer assistance. And then? From Faraday's point of view, we see the boy's bloody stump of a hand and realize he's in shock. After Faraday screams for help and no one comes out of their houses to assist, he speeds the boy off to the hospital. In this way, he comes to know neighbors he and his grad-student girlfriend, Brooke (Hope Davis) have virtually ignored since they moved into the neighborhood.
The heavy-handedness of the script becomes clear when we realize that a) Faraday's wife was an FBI agent who was killed in a botched raid that was based on faulty information, and b) the terrorists in the neighborhood just happened to move into a house directly across from the professor who teaches a course on terrorism at George Washington University.
Since Prof. Faraday still has issues with the FBI--blaming them for his wife's death and meeting with his wife's former co-agent (Robert Gossett) to find out whether she's still remembered--he actually might have been ripe for recruiting. But that's a direction Kruger chose not to go, and none of the characters are really developed beyond their function in the script. Instead, we get a pretty straightforward story that gives us obvious clue after clue. Lang says in conversation he's a graduate of Kansas State, but then Faraday sees misdirected, forwarded mail from a different university's alumni office addressed to his neighbor. Lang says he's an architect working on a shopping mall (hence all the blueprints scattered all over his house), but Faraday peeks at one and sees an office building instead. And when he decides to get yearbooks and pursue this thing further, he realizes that Lang is not who he says he is.
"Arlington Road" is like more recent thrillers that ask us to suspend logic and just be swept up by the character's paranoia and suspicions. But there are frankly too many times when we wonder why or have questions about the characters that are never answered for that to happen. And when you get right down to it, there aren't enough twists and turns or complexities to make this work the way it ought to. And the final scenes stretch your powers of imagination and logic more than a piece of Silly Putty.
Surprisingly, though this is mastered in High Definition and presented in 1080p widescreen (2.40:1), it's not nearly as sharp and pop-out superrealist in detail as the Blu-rays that have wowed me. There's considerable background graininess (which could have been a filmmaker's decision) and a general gauziness that makes you feel as if you're watching this through cataracts at times. I wasn't impressed.
The sound was a different matter. The English PCM 5.1 uncompressed soundtrack handled ambient noise well and offered a nice robust bass to balance a treble that also had substance. Additional audio options are English and French Dolby Digital 5.1, with a fairly full menu of subtitle possibilities: English, English SDH, French, Thai, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Lately, it seems as if many of the Blu-rays I've reviewed have fallen into a pattern of offering a commentary, making of, and a few token deleted or extended scenes. Same thing here. Director Pendleton teams with Bridges for an audio commentary that pretty much covers expected (and familiar) terrain. It's not a bad commentary, mind you, but it struck me as awfully typical. Same with the making-of feature, that felt a bit like a pre-release teaser. The only other extra is an alternate ending which isn't any better than the one that's offered.
Despite the straight trajectory of the plot and the relative lack of character development, Pellington still manages to create and sustain an atmosphere of tension. That's the film's plus. He's got a handle on the thriller genre, and the actors have a handle on their characters. But the negatives outweigh the positives. Too much is based on coincidence, and a professor whose first impulse is to dive in and handle the investigation (and pursuit) himself should be calling the authorities instead, especially since he's connected. But that would be another movie, wouldn't it? And a more logical one than we get here.