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Friday, 8 July 2011

Arlington Road (1999)

Every so often since I began blogging some six years ago, I have written that Jeff Bridges remains one of the greatest underrated Hollywood actors.  Perhaps this is no longer the case with the recent Oscar nods that he has had for "Crazy Heart" and "True Grit", and he has certainly been a cult favourite since 1998's "The Big Lebowski".  However, one can look back on his roles since 1971's "The Last Picture Show" and he has never been less than outstanding.  He brings a genuine sincerity and believability to each of them and the above movie is another fine example.

I don't think I have previously revisited this one in the twelve years since its release, but it remains a gripping essay on our continued fear of terrorism and our growing paranoia.  Bridges plays an academic, teaching his university class the facts of life about extremism.  This is a particularly fraught subject for him, since his FBI wife was killed in the line of duty whilst investigating a 'flagged' suspect, devastating him and his young son.  He is only just beginning to piece things together with a new young girlfriend, Hope Davis.  Driving home one afternoon, he sees an injured boy staggering down the road towards him; it is only when he has taken him to hospital that he discovers that it is the son of his new across-the-road neighbours, who have been there for a few months but whom he has made no attempt to greet or meet.  Enter Tim Robbins and his screen wife Joan Cusack, who appear to be the perfect suburbanite family with their model home and their three young children.

A series of inexplicable bits and pieces leads Bridges to begin to investigate and to conclude that the pair are not all they are cracked up to be and that they may in fact be dangerous undercover extremists.  Davis thinks he is building mountains out of molehills to suspect such lovely folk, until a chance observation makes her change her mind. As she tries to phone Bridges, in one of the most jump-making sudden appearances in modern cinema, Cusack's friendly but now extremely frightening face hoves into view; it turns out to be the last thing Davis will ever see.  It's a change of pace for Cusack as well as for Robbins, whose usually liberal credentials make him an unlikely villain, but a more chilling one for all that.  The film brings home the message that we never really know our neighbours and that a plausible exterior can hide all sorts of sinister possibilities.  There may not be mere cracks in the American dream, but gaping huge chasms.

One of the interesting questions posed by the film is whether the couple have been targeting the Bridges character since square one to provide the 'fall-guy' for their current plans, to the extent of even harming their son themselves to provide the initial lure.  A previous atrocity in St. Louis where a number of children died (echoes of the real-life Oklahoma tragedy) pinned the blame on a 'single perpetrator' and with his own obsessions, Bridges may well be the perfect patsy tor the next outrage by the unseen extremists who move amongst us.  Not really that far-fetched, but scary stuff.
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