Have you ever heard the Kronos Quartet? If you have, and if you have heard the admittedly limited sampling that I have, you will get this analogy: Arlington Road is to generic Hollywood summer filler as the Kronos Quartet is to Laserlight’s Hooked on Bach. I found it very gripping, very interesting, basically well-executed, and nicely performed. Afterward, I felt vaguely that I had been duped into thinking it was more intense and arty than I thought while I was watching it – and therefore, if I were to view it again, it would be lame and stinky. I must point out at this point that I don’t find Kronos lame and stinky, I find them unfathomable. And I did not find Arlington Road in the least bit lame or stinky or unfathomable either; I just think, like The Game, it would not hold up to repeat viewing. More on that later.
The less you know about the plot the better – the opening 5 minutes was a surprise to me and therefore I found it quite intense and “what the –!” and cool. The bits that should have been as cool, but were annoyingly featured in the preview, should have been much more powerful in context and I felt robbed. If you have never seen the preview, all the better. Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack are interestingly cast in this film – you might say they were cast against type, but then again, maybe they weren’t – the mystery and the tension of what is the truth is all this film has to separate it from a regular thriller, and I refuse to be a party to ruining that tension. But they are both very good, as always. I am surprised they have not worked together before – they look good together and Tim and John Cusack have been friends for years.
Jeff Bridges does what he always does well – plays a guy who is not sure if he is in his element or not, reactive, explosive, lots of inner work going on. He’s also a professor and a man with baggage, something else Jeff Bridges does very very well. There are kids in this movie, and I would rate them as average kid performances, not abrasive and not brilliant. The men live in a grotesque suburban neighborhood (not unlike my own – in fact, I think I had the same builder as Tim Robbins) and the whole suburbia thing is used pretty well overall. I am sure most of Generica the Beautiful looks like my neighborhood, so the effect could be universal. Those of you cool enough to live in groovy pre-WWII neighborhoods won’t understand the soullessness of these homes.
Many times, directors who try funky stylistic (i.e. not naturalistic) things with their filmmaking turn me off by doing it too much: Quentin Tarantino and his brassy overbright hyper-neo-film noir lighting, the Pillow Book with its weird layering of images over standard footage, flashes of alternate images, etc., that kind of stuff passes easily into the realm of lame pretension or just plum annoying. Arlington Road makes what I could call “artsy” choices with lighting and light changes and mood, not a comic booky sort of colored lighting (think Creepshow’s red and blue side lighting) but more of a theatrical spots and gels kind of lighting, clearly artificial. I think it was *mostly* used judiciously enough that it didn’t rank as annoying, but it wasn’t seamless either. Picture a man reacting to a shock, whose background is entirely black (whereas before it had natural style lighting) and he is bathed in an amber spotlight. Like that. Odd, but only really badly done in a couple of spots.
If you saw The Game and enjoyed it, you might have had the same experience I did: an interesting, gripping tale, with a main character truly lost in his surroundings, behaving erratically, getting set up, doing things out of his character but which make sense to us the viewer, understanding his travails. Then the ending, denouement, and all is made clear. Upon a second viewing, The Game is immensely unsatisfying. Knowing the outcome makes the clearly fabricated screens and red herrings weak and contrived. Arlington Road, while I have only seen it once, seems to be the kind of movie that will lose all its power on a second viewing, and that is the reason I grant it matinee with a possibility for snacks status. I am still hesitant whether to grant the snacks or not; I really was tense and interested and entertained, and isn’t that why I go see movies like this? But seeing through the movie, thinking about it retrospectively, I see how it would fall apart under scrutiny. So, you know, don’t spend too much money, but you probably will enjoy it. It’s not bad at all.
Post script: For the first time in weeks, you may have noticed I did not need to use The Phantom Menace as a basis of comparison for this review. Perhaps I have been cured of PM’s banality and suckage and I can get on with my life. Or maybe not.
MPAA Rating R for violence and some language.
Release date 7/9/1999
Time in minutes 119
Director Mark Pellington