Arlington Road has a witty conceit buried beneath its layers of emotional sogginess and shock effects: the idea that domestic terrorists are otherwise normal citizens who, by quietly indoctrinating newcomers and their own young, may someday take control of our society through sheer numbers. The movie treats like them like a secret church group or social club that is quietly plucking people one by one out of the straight world and converting them to its cause. The terrorists who live on Arlington Road even have lawn parties complete with too much booze and overloud laughter, and their mastermind is a bloodless structural engineer who builds shopping centers for a living. It’s a variation on movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Rosemary’s Baby; it’s Rod Serling’s vision of middle-class America updated to the ‘90s.
Arlington Road could have been a superb dark fantasy had it followed up on this premise, but instead it focuses on the emotional anguish of the terrorists’ do-gooder neighbor – that is, it takes its own malarkey seriously. Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) is a college professor who teaches a course in domestic terrorism. His wife, an FBI agent, was killed during a weapons raid gone bad, and Faraday is now convinced that the government is downplaying the true extent of the terrorist threat in America. When a new family, the Langs, moves in across the street, and the father (Tim Robbins) begins acting suspiciously, Faraday must balance his paranoid obsession against his suspicions that Oliver Lang is a political terrorist.
It’s nothing short of a nightmare to see Jeff Bridges, one of America’s best screen actors over the last 25 years, straight-jacketed in a crappy role like that of Michael Faraday. What about it could have possibly appealed to him? Faraday is so patently a screenwriter’s creation that Bridges can’t do anything with the part except chew the scenery – not even his physical presence can save him this time.
Robbins does his best to lighten the tone whenever he appears (which is all too rarely); at least he knows this nonsense shouldn’t be taken seriously. But Robbins and Bridges never seem to agree on acting styles: Bridges is always wet with emotion while Robbins is playing in a much cooler movie. The two men are supposed to be good friends toward the middle of the story, yet their scenes are filled with so much empty talk that we never get to see them bouncing off each other or basking in each other’s company – we never get to see what these actors can really do together.
Joan Cusack (playing Robbins’ wife) is the only cast member who seems to realize what a twisted idea the movie’s fundamental premise is. The script doesn’t give her much to do but she takes over the scenes she’s in with her sly facial expressions. Her shining moment comes while giving Bridges a hug, and her face (seen over his shoulder) transforms itself in a flicker from maternal empathy to alert malevolence. Cusack does it so well that the effect is more ticklish than ominous.
But Arlington Road is set in one of the most boring worlds in all of moviedom: it’s a world where Lang’s reluctance to discuss his work is seen as a "clue," where characters recite in detail all the actions we’ve just seen them perform, and where the hero’s best friend just happens to be an FBI agent. It’s a world teeming with astounding coincidences that nobody ever thinks to question: of course, the bomber moves in across the street from a terrorism professor; and, of course, Faraday’s girlfriend happens to be in the same parking garage where Lang is engaged in a shady transaction.
Arlington Road is a schizophrenic mess. It’s too muddled to be a thinking person’s picture and it’s too talky for an action picture; it fails as a character study and it doesn’t have the nerve to be campy. And for its gratuitous, ripped-off-from-today’s-headlines references to Ruby Ridge and Oklahoma City, it deserves to die a lingering, solitary death.
– Tom Block