Arlington Road [1999]

It's easy to understand why Arlington Road sat on the studio shelf for nearly a year. No, the film isn't awful; rather, it's an extremely edgy and ultimately bleak thriller that offers no clear-cut heroes or villains. In other words, Hollywood had no idea how to sell it. Director Mark Pellington's underrated directorial debut, Going All the Way, suffered the same fate, essentially because the filmmaker's presentation of suburban America often shifts dramatically within the same film. Characters are usually miserable and bordering on meltdown, no situation is straightforward, and things usually end badly. Arlington Road begins as an astute study of suburban paranoia. Michael Faraday (a face-pinched Jeff Bridges, who spends most of the film on the brink of tears) is a college professor who teaches American history courses on terrorism. He's been a conspiracy freak since his wife, an FBI agent, was killed during a botched raid that feels like a thinly fictionalized reference to the Waco tragedy. After saving the life of his next-door neighbor's child, he initially befriends the family (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack), but soon believes the husband is a terrorist. The first half of the film mocks Faraday: he has no real evidence and is not the most stable of protagonists. Despite the fact that it was government paranoia that got his wife killed, Faraday repeats the same type of behavior. Pellington shifts gears in the second half, however, and for awhile, it seems that the film has simultaneously sunk into a cheap, high-octane brand of Hollywood entertainment and undermined its own point. Arlington Road, though, possesses a stunning ending that's a real gut punch, one that may leave you needing a second viewing to catch all of its smartly executed setup. --Dave McCoy

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