When Prof. Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) lectures about the American Revolution at George Washington University, he isn’t thinking about 200 years ago. His all-too-contemporary class, made even more popular by an intense oratory style used to rile up his complacent students, is about domestic terrorism.
Faraday’s passion has personal roots: His FBI agent-wife was killed on a botched raid at the rural home of a suspected arms dealer. He wants governmental accountability, but her former partner, Whit Carver (Robert Gossett), only provides compassionate inquiries about his 9-year-old son, Grant (Spencer Treat Clark).
The father-son dynamic is key to Arlington Road, which opens with a nightmarish sequence that director Mark Pellington renders in blindingly white imagery. Driving home to his tidy, postcolonial house in the quiet, orderly D.C. suburb of Reston, Va. (a favorite of government employees, which surprisingly doesn’t factor into the story), Faraday spots a boy about his son’s age stumbling down the middle of the street. Seeing that his arm is bleeding and badly burned, he rushes him to the hospital in a frenzy of displaced emotions. It’s there he finally meets his new neighbors, Cheryl (Joan Cusack) and Oliver Lang (Tim Robbins), the parents of 10-year-old Brady (Mason Gamble).
The Langs appear to have stumbled in from another era, but the usually standoffish Faraday chalks it up to the fact that they’re from the amber waves of grain heartland, Kansas. They seem tolerant enough, accepting his relationship with a much younger former graduate student, Brooke (Hope Davis), and even adopt the lonely Grant as part of their extended brood.
From our contemporary perspective, such normalcy is bound to raise a red flag. Just as the propaganda of the 1950s spread the fear that communists could cloak themselves as average Americans and corrupt from within, Faraday’s growing suspicion that a solid and loving patriarch like Oliver Lang could actually be a right-wing extremist is very much an expression of ’90s anxieties.
For an interesting while, it seems as if Arlington Road is actually going to be about these fears, particularly how it plays out in the mind of a college professor weaned on the anti-war civil disturbances of the ’60s who becomes obsessed with the rise of home-turf terrorism.
Director Pellington (Going All the Way) is an impressive visual stylist and has a terrific cast at hand – particularly Joan Cusack whose ever-smiling Cheryl is chilling without the usual Stepford wife clichés. But the script, from first-time screenwriter Ehren Kruger, is overloaded with coincidences and ominous portents, and turns out to be little more than a conventional thriller.
While Arlington Road uses the iconography of mass violence epitomized by the federal building bombing in Oklahoma City, the details have been fictionalized to more neatly dovetail into the film’s particular scenario. In this conspiracy theory, a network of people works diligently to make it appear as if a complex terrorist act is the work of one man.
Arlington Road recognizes this idea as part of a distinctly American mythology whereby the lone gunman is demonized so nobody has to examine the environment that spawned him.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.