"Arlington Road" is an intelligent, insidiously plotted Hitchcockian thriller directed in souped-up, modern expressionistic style. A study of the bland face of evil that culminates in an all-too-plausible attempt at domestic terrorism, this absorbing and surprising political melodrama sometimes tries too hard for its own good.

“Arlington Road” is an intelligent, insidiously plotted Hitchcockian thriller directed in souped-up, modern expressionistic style. A study of the bland face of evil that culminates in an all-too-plausible attempt at domestic terrorism, this absorbing and surprising political melodrama sometimes tries too hard for its own good, overstressing points when simple understatement would have a more chilling effect. But in an era when most suspensers are hopelessly contrived, derivative and one-dimensional, this one has some real weight in addition to its credible main characters and emotional charge. Vice-tightening thriller element is the main commercial plus, but auds have generally been cool to realistic (as opposed to cartoonish) portrayals of terrorism, a fact that perhaps only a superstar cast could have overcome to shoot B.O. further than modest levels.

Originally a Polygram release, pic was recently acquired by Sony as the first title under its new Screen Gems banner, and is opening today in the U.K. and Ireland.

First-time screenwriter Ehren Kruger won the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship for this script in 1996, and it’s easy to see how it must have stuck out from the crowd: It has a classical structure that hooks you quickly yet allows plenty of time for character and dramatic development; it gradually introduces a larger topical context for the personal story; several intriguing revelations and twists are sprung along the way; and the inevitable action climax is rife with deep irony.

Director Mark Pellington, who dealt with resonant material to flawed but estimable effect in his debut feature, “Going All the Way,” gets a good handle on the story dynamics here. In a startling opening sequence, college prof Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) saves the life of an injured boy he encounters on his placid suburban Washington. D.C., street. In gratitude, the boy’s parents, Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack), who have recently moved into the neighborhood, solicit the company of Michael and his 9-year-old son, Grant, who’s about the same age as their boy, Brady, and who has been withdrawn since the death of his mother, a former FBI agent, in a shoot-out with an alleged extremist militia clan two years earlier.

Much more than the intellectual Michael, whose lectures in American history are tainted by his obsession with radical fringe groups due to the manner of his wife’s death, the Midwestern Langs fit right in with the sterile community of cookie-cutter homes and manicured lawns; they’re pleasant, polite and just too damn normal, which, of course, becomes very much the point when Michael notices some cracks in the facade and begins poking into the activities and background of his overly friendly neighbor.

Sneaking peeks at Oliver’s work, Michael realizes that his architectural blueprints are not for the mall job on which he claims to be the structural engineer. Discovering his college yearbook, Michael finds a different name under Oliver’s photograph. Perhaps most suspicious of all, this 41-year-old man actually drinks milk with dinner.

After compiling his fragments of admittedly shaky evidence and sharing his suspicions with his grad student girlfriend, Brooke (Hope Davis), Michael uncovers Oliver’s carefully hidden secret at story’s midpoint. From here on, the men engage in escalating psychological cat-and-mouse maneuvers, circling warily and threatening each other against a background of superficially innocuous activity that comes across as increasingly ominous.

In fact, it is these portents of calamity that are among the yarn’s overarticulated elements. One suspects early on that Oliver must be up to no good, but the film doles out his motivations and intentions in carefully spaced doses, and the full extent of his manipulations is expertly withheld until the very end.

The conversations between the two articulate, well-educated men is unusually adult and laced with considerations of responsibility, honesty and accountability in modern society. Fortunately, the heavy freight in the script is integral to the lives of the leading characters, especially as regards the men’s feelings about the shortcomings of government institutions and the loss of loved ones; the different ways Michael and Oliver deal with these issues determines the trajectory of the drama.

Bridges and Robbins are in fine form, with the former registering a strong sense of impassioned anxiety along with the lingering pain over the fate of Michael’s beloved wife, and the latter calmly unpeeling in stages the layers of Oliver’s personality, ultimately revealing his frightening nature. Supporting roles are insufficiently rounded by comparison; despite visible attempts, it was probably a hopeless exercise for Davis to make her g.f. character into anything more than a sounding board for Michael’s latest discoveries, and Cusack’s Cheryl is too ambiguous a role vis-a-vis her husband’s activities.

Production values are quite strong, notably Therese Deprez’s boldly hued production design, Bobby Bukowski’s excellent widescreen lensing, Conrad Buff’s taut editing and Angelo Badalamenti’s pulsating score.

Arlington Road

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Screen Gems presentation, in association with Lakeshore Entertainment, of a Gorai/Samuelson production. Produced by Peter Samuelson, Tom Gorai, Marc Samuelson. Executive producers, Tom Rosenberg, Sigurjon Sighvatsson, Ted Tannebaum. Co-executive producers, Judd Malkin, Ed Ross. Co-producers, Jean Higgins, Richard S. Wright. Directed by Mark Pellington. Screenplay, Ehren Kruger.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Bobby Bukowski; editor, Conrad Buff; music, Angelo Badalamenti; additional music, Tomandandy; production designer, Therese Deprez; art director, David Stein; set decorator, Barbara Haberecht; costume designer, Jennifer Barrett-Pellington; sound (Dolby digital), Pud Cusack; associate producers, Ellen Dux, James McQuaide; assistant director, Jerry Grandey, William Paul Clark; second unit director, Vince Deadrick Jr.; second unit camera, Scott Smith; casting, Ellen Chenoweth. Reviewed at Sony Studios, Culver City, March 9, 1999. (In Baltimore Film Festival.) Running time: 119 MIN.

With

Michael Faraday - Jeff Bridges Oliver Lang - Tim Robbins Cheryl Lang - Joan Cusack Brooke Wolf - Hope Davis FBI Agent Whit Carver - Robert Gossett Brady Lang - Mason Gamble Grant Faraday - Spencer Treat Clark Dr. Archer Scobee - Stanley Anderson
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