The bumper-sticker favorite ”Even Paranoids Have Enemies” is the high concept for Arlington Road, a topical thriller predicated on the sturdy dramatic notion that the guy next door to you — the one you think is a dangerous weirdo — really is a dangerous weirdo. Of course, since Oklahoma City, paranoia has gotten a whole new respectability; the movie, originally slated for release in May, was postponed due to national mourning following the Columbine High School massacre by boys who looked only like black-trench-coat-wearing outcasts, hardly like mass murderers.
But midway through, this engrossing thriller gets paranoid about really exploring paranoia: Slippery issues about trust, parental responsibility, and the inalienable American right to personal and political freedom are ceded to Hollywood’s inalienable right to stage high-pitched chase scenes and a shocking big finish.
As befits a drama starring Tim Robbins, Arlington Road clangs with political overtones. Robbins and Joan Cusack play Oliver and Cheryl Lang, a couple of four-square, if extremely private, suburban parents of three, who move into a nondescript house across the street from Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges), a widowed college professor with a young son. Faraday, though, displays more than a layman’s curiosity about his secretive neighbors; his academic specialty is, conveniently, domestic terrorism, and his late wife was, conveniently, an FBI agent killed during a Ruby Ridge-like shoot-out. (His graduate-student girlfriend, Brooke, is played by Hope Davis; Brooke’s job is to tell her boyfriend to quit obsessing about his wife or trusting his instincts.)
Directed by Mark Pellington (Going All the Way) from Ehren Kruger’s script, the movie brightly plays against Robbins’ well-known left-wing political activism and Cusack’s well-known comic off-centeredness by casting the two as right-wing extremists. (Rarely has Cusack’s endearing smile been so terrifying as when Cheryl surprises Brooke at a phone booth.) Bridges, though, has a lot of hard lifting to do; rather than playing a person, he’s got to play a collection of fears, doubts, and reasons to ratchet the tension up. And he does what he can, staring fearfully at a computer screen as he pieces together clues to Oliver’s real identity. But when Faraday is speeding in his car, chasing after a van that may or may not be carrying explosives toward the heart of Washington, D.C., he’s not being paranoid — just a soldier in the war on subtlety. B