Jul 4, 2019
Joseph: “Last time on One Movie Punch…”
Ryan: “Goodness, all the humidity and bugs around here. What is this, Tampa?”
Keith: “Kind of surprised they all docked at the same pier down the beach, leaving this clear access point available for us.”
Andrew: “Think it might be a trap?”
Garrett: “Quiet, Admiral Ackbar!”
Joseph: “Let’s just see what’s on this one. Pretty small file. Hope the audio quality is okay.”
Joseph: “Guys, you know... I don’t even think this qualifies as a movie. It’s barely thirty minutes long. I mean, I dig The Lonely Island, and... oh, now I get it.”
Mike: “This is Massive Late Fee with Mike and Mark!”
Mark: “But, uh, yeah. We've taken over this island, and you can’t have it back, so One Movie Punch is dead, and long live Massive Late Fee.”
Joseph: “Just outside the One Movie Punch Secret Podcasting Island Base Bunker...”
Amy: “Okay, so Garrett’s canvassed the camp, and has given us a review of their habits.”
Garrett: “They seem to slack off after each episode gets released. We should hit ‘em right after the next one.”
Amy: “Good plan. Keith, you and Ryan take the south side. Garrett and Andrew, head over the north side. I’ll distract them from the middle. Standard pincer attack.”
Ryan: “Better than all these pincer movements from these bugs. Don’t you have some One Movie Punch Bug Spray or whatever?”
Keith: “Seriously! You’ve got an island, a submarine, a plane, a fan fleet, a spyglass...”
Amy: “Maybe next time. Any final thoughts?”
Andrew: “Do I still need to have my review ready for tomorrow?”
Andrew: “Crap. It’s gonna be a long night.”
Amy: “Very likely. Now, let’s spread out and wait for the signal.”
Joseph: “Meanwhile, in the bunker...”
Joseph: “Day five of the siege. Not the way I usually spend Independence Day. I can hear them watching it out there, on the One Movie Punch Home Theater System. I was saving those burgers and hot dogs for today as well. But, you know, if you put a beef stick between two granola bars, it sort of... oh, they’re coming.”
Joseph: “Here’s the fifth movie... on a flash drive. I don’t know how much more of this I can take. Arlington Road? Well, at least this one fits the format. No trailer segments. Not sure how I’m going to capture them... oh, they’re turning the television towards me, and now they’re watching it.”
Joseph: “I really hate these guys.”
Joseph: “Two hours later.”
Joseph: “Well, I guess with a title like We’re Watching Here that something like this would happen, but I didn’t expect it to be so literal. Time to finish putting this one together.”
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Here we go!
<< WE’RE WATCHING HERE PROMO >>
Today’s movie is “Arlington Road” (1999), the psychological thriller directed by Mark Pellington, written by Ehren Kruger and starring Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack. In ‘Arlington Road,’ a history professor grapples with the belief that his neighbors might indeed be domestic terrorists about to unleash an attack. This review contains spoilers.
Released almost exactly 20 years ago, on July 9, 1999, “Arlington Road” stars Jeff Bridges as Michael Faraday, a history professor at George Washington University whose research specializes in domestic terrorism. Michael has a personal link to the subject; his wife was an FBI agent killed during a raid gone wrong. In the film’s opening sequence, Michael comes across an injured boy wandering his subdivision and takes him to the hospital; he soon learns that boy belongs to his across-the-street neighbors, Oliver and Cheryl Lang, played by Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack. The neighbors form a quick friendship, but it’s not long before Michael begins to grow suspicious. Could his salt-of-the-earth, God-fearing neighbors actually be hatching an anti-government plot right under Michael’s nose?
There’s an interesting idea here, and Ehren Kruger’s script is strongest when it puts the paranoia on hold and explores the terrifying idea of extreme fringe groups ready to go to war with the government. In the 1990s, this would have been a current fear, coming in the shadow of FBI standoffs in Waco and at Ruby Ridge, and also after the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City. True, our attention shifted to more international threats after Sept. 11th, but the fears in Kruger’s screenplay still echo in an age of radical right-wing extremism, much of which hinges on fear and distrust of the government.
But the movie plays differently in a post-Alex Jones world. Its repeated hints that stories of lone-wolf attackers are covers for complex conspiracies and media cover-ups left me feeling a bit queasy in an age where unproven rumors can spread like wildfire on social media and people have turned even tragedies like Sandy Hook into far-fetched conspiracy theories that hurt and demean victims and their families.
All that to say that what was a subject ripe for a nasty, tense little thriller in 1999 feels much weightier in 2019. Were “Arlington Road” made today, it wouldn’t be a Hitchcockian suspense tale, but a story that had to grapple with its themes and treat them with emotion and weight.
Instead, Kruger’s script uses political tension and ripped-from-the-headlines scenarios as a jumping off point for your typical “the neighbors are not what they seem” subplot, which has been done before, much better I might add, in movies like “Rear Window” and “The Burbs”. In “Arlington Road”, Kruger is too eager to get to the big moments to layer in the slow burn that a good suspense film requires. There’s no uneasy tension that builds between Michael and the Langs; after one scene, he immediately becomes suspicious and it’s not long before Michael is conning his way into their house to rifle through drawers and check for suspicious blueprints.
The plot requires immense leaps of logic, and Kruger is fond of creating moments that are suspenseful on the surface but make no sense when you stop to think about them. In one scene, Oliver stops by Michael’s university just to say hi and walks in at the moment Michael is checking out microfiche on him. The two don’t work together - they work on opposite sides of town - and who stops by their neighbor’s office just to see if they want to get a drink? The moment only exists to build suspense.
Similarly, there’s a moment where a minor character just happens upon Oliver in a nondescript parking garage, just as he’s participating in a suspicious drop off. The coincidence is laughable, but the fallout from it - which results in the character’s death - is completely ludicrous, and pushes the movie nearly into slasher movie territory.
The cast, I have to say, navigates the ridiculousness as best they can, Bridges in particular. The erstwhile Dude is believable as a smart, liberal professor, and Bridges balances Michael’s mourning and anger with his intellect and solid moral compass. He’s also particularly good in the scenes where Michael appears to be losing his grip on reality. Hope Davis, in a minor early role, gives more personality and depth to Michael’s grad student girlfriend than is actually on the page. Cusack and Robbins basically play off their roles as likable actors, their over-the-top niceness creepy in itself.
A good suspense film, especially one hinging on ideas of paranoia, needs a careful command of tone and a long, slow build. We have to be eased into the world that is going to slowly grow crazy and it requires a confident management of tone. But director Mark Pellington doesn’t understand how to gently and confidently manipulate his audience. From scene one, the movie is pitched at a 10. The movie is too quick to envelop us in a nightmare, too eager to shock. Pellington’s music video background is a hindrance here; as the threat should be building subtly and organically, he’s too busy trying to plunge us into a visual nightmare full of canted angles, harsh lighting, all punctuated by a soundtrack that seems to want to pulverize the audience. If Hitchcock manipulated his audience, Pellington grabs it by the neck and shoves its face at the screen.
By the time we get to a scene set at a backyard party where Oliver reveals his true self to Michael, Pellington has no more intensity to build while still keeping the film grounded in reality, so he goes the opposite direction. He turns Oliver into a supervillain. The entire scene feels false and disconnected from reality, even laughable, and it sets the stage for a final 30 minutes that is so eager to shock that it forgets to think.
I mean, if “Arlington Road” is remembered by anyone today, it’s likely due to its ending. And I’m not going to spoil anything directly, but I will allude to some plot events. The film ends with a twist, a “Seven”-style gut-punch of an ending that in the moment feels shocking, even horrifying. And I remember sitting in the theater watching the movie thinking, “Man, people are going to talk about this ending forever.”
Except, they’re not. So, what happened?
Well, on one level, 1999 happened. Two months after “Arlington Road” debuted, “The Sixth Sense” premiered, delivering one of the most emotional and effective twist endings in movie history. Two months after that, we got “Fight Club”, with another great ending. At that point, “Arlington Road” couldn’t help but seem like a cute try in comparison. Because here’s the thing: While it’s shocking and emotional, “Arlington Road”’s twist ending is also utterly ridiculous, an absurd leap in logic that abandons any semblance of reality in its desire to make our heads spin.
After seeing the movie, consider how much had to go right for the villains’ final plan to work. The amount of timing, good luck and dependence on human behavior is absurd. The only way for any of this to be pulled off is for the villains to be psychic, or have some other supernatural ability. There is a way to tell this story, with this devastating twist, and make it work, but it requires a lot more legwork on Kruger’s part to see the motivation and to see the process in there. It’s just not there in the script.
I mean, are the final minutes shocking and devastating? Sure, and in a post-9/11 film, the final moments carry new horror and new resonance. But the moment you start to ask questions about it, the shock turns into confusion and frustration. Twenty years ago, maybe we could have accepted this as a silly twist in a dumb, but somewhat entertaining film. Today, it feels more like a sick joke, and its failure to be responsible with its main twist feels offensive.
In the end, “Arlington Road” is a 50 out of 100. It’s worth seeing if you are a fan of Bridges, Robbins or Cusack, and some of the ideas at play are still potent; this is a movie that might actually meet the criteria of being a remake candidate. The idea is there; it just needs a bit more finesse and care in the execution.
Rotten Tomatoes: 63%
One Movie Punch: 5.0/10
Arlington Road (1999) is rated (R) and is available for rental and streaming on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Playstation and Google Play!
Amy: “All right, ready?”
Ryan: “Let’s Go!”
Andrew: “Yeah, yeah, sorry, just putting the finishing touches on my review for tomorrow.”
Amy: “Okay, and in three, two, one...”
Amy: “FOR CHEESECAKE!”