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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The paranoid late ’90s thriller Arlington Road hides a cruel twist in plain sight

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Photo: Screen Gems

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. The summer movie season is upon us, which means its time for a semi-annual tradition: singing the praises of the most unloved, underperforming, or simply forgotten summer blockbusters.


Arlington Road (1999)

Calling Arlington Road an unsung summer blockbuster admittedly stretches that category’s definition. A political thriller in the Parallax View mold, the film did get a wide release (in July 1999), but it was made for a relatively low budget and boasted decidedly mid-level stars: Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, and Hope Davis. Nobody likely expected a box-office bonanza. Still, it underperformed even by that metric, finishing sixth on its opening weekend (even though the only other studio film to bow that week was American Pie), and received largely mixed reviews. In today’s conspiracy-fueled climate, the commercial and critical fate of a movie as deftly engineered and deeply cynical as this one might well be very different.

Bridges plays Michael Faraday, a history professor still mourning his late wife, who’d worked for the FBI and been killed in a Waco-style standoff. Seeking a playmate for his young son, Faraday is happy to meet new neighbors Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Robbins and Cusack), as they have a boy around the same age. Soon, however, Faraday begins to suspect that this seemingly ordinary, exceedingly friendly couple is harboring some sort of dark secret. Some of the personal information they impart doesn’t check out, and as Faraday starts snooping around and keeping tabs, he discovers more and more discrepancies and inexplicable behavior. Eventually, he concludes that the Langs are homegrown terrorists plotting an attack.

Watching Arlington Road is a uniquely maddening experience—at least the first time—because it seems quite poorly plotted. (The screenplay is by Ehren Kruger, who would go on to write Scream 3, The Ring, and several Transformers movies.) Robbins and (especially) Cusack are a sublime mix of jolly and creepy, but their characters make so many dumb mistakes that they hardly seem like formidable antagonists; you don’t so much wonder what they’re up to as why they haven’t already been caught. Explaining why that’s not a bad thing would constitute a spoiler—suffice it to say that this film mirrors, in its own way, the batshit-paranoid worldview that assumes every tragedy is a false-flag operation, and that accuses every survivor or victim’s relative of being a “crisis actor.” If Bridges seems overly intense at times, especially compared to his usual laid-back vibe, that’s because he’s matching his performance to the movie’s tone.

Audiences in 1999 weren’t much interested, perhaps because Waco, Ruby Ridge, and Oklahoma City (all of which the film not only evokes but mentions by name) were still relatively fresh in memory. It’s an even earlier American tragedy, though, and the conspiracy theories surrounding it, that this film actually has in mind. Few (if any) contemporaneous reviews placed any significance on its title, but Kruger could have picked any of a gazillion street names. He chose Arlington for a reason. A sly hint among the camouflage.

Availability: Arlington Road is available through the major digital services. The DVD can be obtained through Amazon or possibly your local video store/library.