Judge Ryan Keefer would rather have seen Arlington Road on the second right past Melrose Place. Ha! We kill here at DVD Verdict!
Our review of Arlington Road, published November 5th, 1999, is also available.
Fear thy neighbor.
Mark Pellington was an accomplished director in music videos for U2, Pearl Jam and others, with occasional television episodes in the early and mid '90s. He finally took on a feature film in 1999 with Arlington Road, a thriller loosely surrounding real-life events. So how is the film and how does it look on Blu-ray?
Facts of the Case
From a script by Ehren Kruger (The Ring), the film looks at two neighbors on a sleepy suburban road. On one hand, there's Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski), a college professor who was married to an FBI agent killed in the line of duty, and on the other hand, Oliver Lang (Tim Robbins, Mystic River) and his wife Cheryl (Joan Cusack, High Fidelity), pillars of the community, inviting the neighborhood kids over to play and being den master of a Boy Scout troop in the area. Faraday thinks that Lang may be hiding something more behind his smile and nice family, so he tries probing a little bit further to see what's going on.
Admittedly Arlington Road is a tough film to watch or devote a lot of words to know, as it's one of those films that is in the unenviable position of feeling just a bit antiquated, or maybe leaving the viewer feel naturally uneasy. The reason for this is because it was firmly set in an era where Oklahoma City was starting to disappear from the public consciousness, but incidents like Waco, Ruby Ridge and other events between Federal agents and separatists (or extreme right wingers, if you will) were being used as a symbol of the government's abuse of power pertaining to its own citizens. Then the events of Sept. 11 happened, rendering Arlington Road or similar films like this obsolete or flat out undesirable.
Having said that, there are legitimate observations that are raised from this film. Faraday's character is one who is still grieving over the loss of his wife, despite currently seeing a former grad student (Hope Davis, American Splendor). He teaches a class on domestic terrorism and investigation, and the main topic seems to be the events surrounding his wife's death, including the bombing of a federal building in St. Louis. In it, he pointedly observes the desire for the people's need for closure in some manner or fashion. People want someone held accountable, and it's usually easier to swallow the "one man acted alone" idea, perhaps helping the people feel safe again. Now (and here's the part where I will probably get myself in a little bit of trouble) maybe that's why things like Sept. 11 can't be erased from our memory. Aside from the sheer size and scope of what occurred, the fact that it wasn't just a dozen or so people with localized ties to terror groups makes it all the more staggering. America can't be that safe again, for one reason or another, because there's no closure, and there won't be for awhile.
In Pellington's initial outing as a feature film director, he cleverly uses sight and sound to raise the level of tension through the film. Pellington uses camera angles that look up to the characters, leading to a full discovery of what they see. This makes for more effective revelations to the viewer, accompanied by Kruger's quieter message that keeping your distance from everyone else in your neighborhood and maintaining a "not in my backyard" mentality leads to overblown suspicions, right or wrong. A lot of white noise is used to help keep you on edge as well, especially for the white knuckle ending through the streets of Washington (but is actually more like Houston).
On its own merits, the MPEG-2 encoded 2.40:1 disc looks good, but not great. Blacks seem to be a little bit erratic at times, and the overall image looks soft more often than not. There's some detail to be had from this, but I'd be willing to bet an MPEG-4 encoded transfer would be quite good. The PCM soundtrack is OK, albeit a little bit wasted when it comes to this film. The film is very dialogue driven and not too much occurs within the rear speakers, so when it comes to demo material, I'd skip this one. The extras are pulled from the standard def disc, starting with a commentary with Pellington and Bridges. It's the usual discussion between a director and actor, as they talk about what drew them to the film, and they talk about the characters and the film's pacing, among other items. Pellington does more of a technical breakdown from time to time, but it's clear to me that both of them didn't want to be there, and you can tell. There's a 20-minute making of look at the film that's your usual dog and pony show about the film and those who created it, followed by an alternate ending (with Pellington's introduction) that for some may be a little easier to take, but I find myself agreeing with him when he says that it's very drawn out.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
To the credit of those involved, I've got to say that at the time this came out, I don't remember a film that was so "mainstream," if you will, that wound up being as dark as it was. The opening pre-credit sequence was something designed to jolt you, and that was accomplished in spades. From there on out, part of me respected the choices everyone was making in this film in keeping it as pessimistic as it was considering the names that were involved with it.
Arlington Road should be remembered more for Pellington's technical expertise in heightening the drama, rather than the story itself, for those who feel uneasy by the material. The acting is capable and the story is well intended, but if you're uncomfortable watching this, watch it from a technical point of view. You'll see that it's quite accomplished from someone who had cut his teeth on Pearl Jam videos. But overall, I'd probably skip it.
The court finds the defendants guilty and orders them (with Bridges' exception) to go out and make an uplifting movie, and to not be so serious all the time.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Mark Pellington and Jeff Bridges
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