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The Big Picture: They're out to get you






It begins with a blurred figure weaving slowly down a road, like a marathon runner woozy with fatigue. The camera swoons around a young boy, who's sweating and hyperventilating; dimly recalled voices urge him on as spots of blood start to dapple his sneakers. A car pulls up, a man jumps out and takes the boy, who we now see is charred and bleeding, in his arms; next thing we know he's blatting through emergency room doors as hospital staff swarm around the stricken child.

The first few minutes of Arlington Road constitute probably the best opening of any film this year. Director Mark Pellington thrusts us right in medias res - that's Latin for a taut psychological thriller - before we've had a chance to get our bearings. Can the film sustain this ominous flurry? The man who rushes the kid to hospital is Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges), a professor of American history in Washington DC; the boy is the son of his new neighbours across the way, Oliver Lang (Tim Robbins) and his wife Cheryl (Joan Cusack), all-American types who have barbecues in the back yard and sports clothes that are just the wrong side of casual. Apparently their boy had been fooling around with fireworks, but he'll be just fine.

Michael becomes friends with the Langs, even though he's not quite sure about Oliver. What are those strange architectural plans in his study, and why does he get mail from a university he's supposedly never attended? Tim Robbins has an alarming fringe, like Jim Carrey's in Dumb and Dumber, and there's something about the wholesomeness of his suburban everyman that feels deeply suspect. But then Jeff Bridges isn't quite all there either; he's done something odd to his voice that makes him sound as though he's holding an invisible thermometer under his tongue. Pellington seems to be conducting a little competition to see which of the two actors will freak out first.

My money was on Bridges, who presses the hysteria pedal early on and never takes his foot off thereafter. Michael is still haunted by the death of his wife, an FBI agent who was killed in a stakeout. She died for her country, a friend tells him. "She shouldn't have," he replies, bitterly angry about the government's shirking of responsibility in the affair. He keeps his wounds open by lecturing his classes on conspiracy theory and the complacent scapegoating of one man in a recent terrorist outrage. (The Oklahoma City bombing and militia groups are the co-ordinates by which the movie steers its plot.) His refusal to come to terms with his wife's murder has upset relationships both with his girlfriend Brooke (Hope Davis) and his 10-year-old son, who wants to go off to scout camp with Lang's kid.

Brooke thinks Michael has gone off the deep end when she hears he's been tampering with Lang's mail. "Are you teaching the Bill of Rights this semester, or is that not in your programme?" You can see her point. He's much too shrill with his paranoia; if he just calmed down a little she might lend a more sympathetic ear. But, once Michael gets the scent that something's amiss, he's as obsessive as James Stewart in Rear Window, convincing himself (if nobody else) that something dangerous lurks behind the facade across the street. Pellington works up this atmosphere of creeping dread quite nicely in the first 45 minutes, even if he hasn't persuaded Bridges to pace his performance. There's a Hitchcockian stealth in the patient accumulation of detail - neat domestic interiors, an awkward dinner party, kids playing war games - which serves to assure and unsettle both at once. The film examines the idea of the neighbourhood watch, but it's not burglars you're meant to watch for - it's your neighbours.

It's in trying to close the plot's noose that Arlington Road rather loses its way. The psychological intricacy of its early stages gradually gives way to the more straightforward demands of a conspiracy thriller, and the clues to its meaning become steadily more pronounced, less plausible. Is that a wave or a fascist salute Oliver throws to Michael? Would Michael really take his students to the FBI murder scene where his wife died and practically accuse the authorities of a cover-up? The climax, with the gallant prof slaloming through city traffic in pursuit of a terrorist bomber, is galumphingly soundtracked and unhappily recalls the dire thriller Blown Away, in which Bridges traded Irish accents with explosives-genius Tommy Lee Jones. Yet this film is made of sterner stuff, and delivers an ending of uncompromising bleakness: one imagines it tested very badly with preview audiences, which should earn Pellington and his writer, Ehren Kruger, respect for refusing to go the Hollywood way.

Indeed, the beginning and end of the movie are so unusual it almost encourages you to overlook the shortcomings of the middle. Two out of three ain't bad.