One of the great things about looking back on a film from a few years ago is being able to see how starkly revolutionary it was for its time and how it might not have been made today. Part of the emphasis of this series is on the way the films of 1999 heralded a change in mainstream American films, offering up movies that would influence the medium for years, but it’s also an opportunity to revisit stories that would have never seen the theater — not without drastic changes — because of the global events of the past decade. Nowhere is this difference between the film that was and the film that might never have been more obvious than in Arlington Road, a masterfully told suspense story from director Mark Pellington and writer Ehren Kruger. The film was Pellington’s second feature after working in music videos, and it was Kruger’s first feature screenplay. From such humble sources sprang a frightening vision of domestic terrorism that relied equally on classic genre set-ups and the still-fresh memories of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City just four years earlier. The 1990s were, weirdly, an era when a plot like this one was still acceptable fodder for a film, but after the destruction of 9/11 and the subsequent politicization of the events, to say nothing of the years of subsequent foreign wars and domestic battles over civil rights, it’s impossible to imagine this film getting within spitting distance of a table read, much less the wide release Arlington Road received on 1,600 screens on — wait for it — July 9, 1999. This was (a) a summer thriller about (b) domestic terrorism released (c) right after Independence Day. And it’s a damn good movie, to boot.
Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) is a professor at George Washington University who’s amiably driving home one day when he sees a boy stumbling down the street of his neighborhood, sweating and dead-eyed and nursing a bloody stump of an arm. It’s a gruesome, unnerving moment that instantly sets the tone for the film: Faraday will always lose control of his surroundings. He rescues the boy and speeds him to a nearby hospital in the kind of frantic and pulsing scene Bridges plays to the hilt, and Pellington’s experience blending sound and vision (this time a queasy, evocative score from Angelo Badalamenti and the duo tomandandy) shines through in the compelling opening. The boy turns out to be the son of Oliver (Tim Robbins) and Cheryl Lang (Joan Cusack), new neighbors who have lived across the street from Faraday for two months. Their chance meeting with Faraday under grim circumstances in the hospital waiting room provides them all with entry into each other’s lives, propelled by a deadly and curious beginning into something ultimately far more terrifying.
(Caveat: Major spoilers follow, so if you haven’t seen the film and want to maintain that virginal luster for a while longer, scram.)
And yet, despite the startling kickoff, the film’s strength is the way it slow-plays the development of its core plot, unfolding with the deliberate pace and dependence on character of a relationship drama. Faraday teaches his class, spends time with his girlfriend, Brooke (Hope Davis), and 9-year-old son, Grant (Mason Gamble), but mostly he obsesses over the death of his wife, an FBI agent killed three years earlier in a gun bust gone bad. Faraday’s class deals with American terrorism, and the film returns periodically to his lectures on the legitimate spread of a well-armed underground to the pointlessness of American casualties, most notably his wife. Oliver and Cheryl exist alongside Faraday, their ostensibly perfect life a warped mirror next to his emotional turmoil in the white suburbs of Arlington. Their home life mocks Faraday’s at every turn, from the living presence of a mother down to the way their rooms are open and bright, while Faraday’s curtains are eternally drawn, the sunlight never managing to penetrate more than a few inches beyond the windows. He and Brooke dine one evening at the Lang residence, but instead of using the get-together as an awkward segue into the film’s central conceit — that the Langs are, in fact, tied to some of the domestic terrorism groups Faraday’s studied for years — Pellington lets the evening rest on Faraday’s shoulders as he grows heated in a discussion about politics, eventually turning the subject, as always, back to his dead wife. The dinner scene itself is wonderfully done, the audio seamlessly sliding back and forth between conversations between Oliver and Brooke and between Faraday and Cheryl, but it’s Faraday’s daily proffering of his wife’s martyrdom that sums up the evening. Similarly, the film also doesn’t use this moment as one in which Oliver could potentially test Faraday’s loyalties to cause or country. It just plays out like two couples dealing with loads of baggage and learning to live with each other. The story’s logline may be pulpy, but the final film is anything but.
But soon enough, Faraday begins to notice little things like mislabeled mail and intriguing blueprints in Oliver’s study; the man claimed to be an architect working on a shopping mall, but the plans were for an office building, and that lie — or the perception of one — is enough to send Faraday sliding down the rabbit hole in an attempt to uncover the truth. Oliver’s son was wounded playing with fireworks, leading Faraday to wonder if the accident had to do with some genetic desire to create bombs. He goes hunting for clues as best he can using the methods of 1999, meaning he makes a lot of phone calls, leans on an FBI colleague of his wife’s for favors, and even at one point uses the website for the Kansas City Star while combing through Oliver’s past. There’s even a blindingly nerve-wracking scene in which Faraday, driven by madness to act on stupidity, conducts an impromptu search of Oliver’s den, only to be interrupted by Cheryl.
Pellington resists revealing the truth to Faraday as long as possible, even after the viewer knows it. On the one hand, it’s just the basics of suspense: Having Faraday spend time with and even seek comfort and assistance from people we know to be evil makes for a shocking and tense juxtaposition. But on the other, the dissonance gets at the heart of the story’s message and becomes a sick play on Faraday’s own personal belief that most of the time, the government gets the wrong guy. He tells his students to sift through the facts of homegrown terrorist acts and ask themselves if the perpetrators were really desperate loners or part of a larger network of rebels. He’s not advocating conspiracy theories per se; he just knows that the truth is often impossible to know, and that in the absence of understanding such horrible events, people latch onto the easy answer to feel safe. Pellington hangs Faraday with his own rope, letting him lean on Oliver and hesitate to act on his suspicions because he knows the man’s name, and deep down, he wants to feel as safe as anyone else.
The narrative unfolds gracefully and quickly, gathering steam once Faraday knows for sure that Oliver, Cheryl, and their friends are guilty of plotting to destroy something in Washington. The relentless pace of the final act is masterfully done, as Faraday attempts to stop Oliver’s plan from being carried out, but in addition to being a tautly controlled thriller, it’s unsettling to know what will happen by the end of the movie, and what will happen in the real world two years later. Seeing it a decade after its release and eight years after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, almost feels like cheating, as if the film would apologize or take it back had it but known what would happen. The detonation at the end and the faux-news footage of bodies in the rubble is hard to stomach after seeing the real thing on a horribly grander scale; the movie’s climax kills 184 people, about 6.5% of the body count of 9/11. (It’s a surprisingly bloodless denouement, as well; to even dream of a film featuring panicked survivors plunging to their deaths from hundreds of feet in the air would have been unthinkable.)
This film couldn’t, wouldn’t, get made today, not the way it ends, with the bad guys blowing up a chunk of the J. Edgar Hoover Building and moving on to a new town. Maybe a few years from now, maybe more, but not today. Arlington Road doesn’t even offer up the kind of palatable ambiguity of darker-themed dramas, to say nothing of robbing the hero of any chance at redemption. But that brutal commitment to a harrowing story makes it a welcome aberration in a post-9/11 age. Bridges and Robbins are fantastic in their roles, and Cusack is downright stunning in her ability to transform from a loving housewife into a coldly resigned killer. What’s more, the bleakness of Arlington Road is completely justified, and the dark-hearted ending in which Oliver’s group actually succeeds at their task by manipulating Faraday is perfectly in step with the film’s tone and its protagonist’s tragic journey to become the latest misunderstood death in a nation choking on them. The film is able to deal with its subject matter and even build a plot point around a reworked version of the Murrah Building bombing because those events had not become the all-encompassing, commercialized, dangerous opportunities that would come to plague the psychic ground surrounding ground zero of 9/11 in the American consciousness. And that’s because the 2001 attacks came from foreign corners of the world, prompting a response and wars and sacrifices and dark alleys into the human soul. But Oklahoma City, Ted Kaczynski, and the events of Arlington Road were domestic, forcing a nation of news watchers and moviegoers to look within their own borders at the white people living just down the street. It’s disguised as a top-notch thriller, but Pellington’s movie is really a horror film, and it’s unforgettable.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.