Saturday, August 15, 2009

Arlington Road -- suspecting your neighbor

Director: Mark Pellington, 1999.

The twentieth century saw mass departures from the cities. Some named this the "white flight" as caucasian Americans left in droves headed for the suburbs. The urban areas of the inner cities had become drug-infested and riddled with crime. Gangs were growing and drive-bys were becomnig common. The suburbs offered security.

Arlington Road itself is a picture perfect example of suburban safety. Large detached brick-faced houses with beautifully groomed yards sit side-by-side. The garages house SUVs suitable for driving kids around. You can almost smell the BBQ cooking on the backyard grills. All is well in this suburb of Washington D.C. Or is it?

The serenity of this visage is broken by a boy stumbling down the center of the street. The camera catches the drops of blood slowly dripping onto his tennis shoes. When Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges), driving home from his job as professor of history at GWU, sees him, he stops the car, runs to gather up the bleeding kid, and drives like a maniac to the ER. The boy is saved and Faraday gets to meet the thankful parents, Oliver (Tim Robbins) and Cheryl Lang (Joan Cusack, My Sister's Keeper). It turns out, they are his kitty-corner neighbors.

Pellington highlights one of the fallacies of the suburban lifestyle: not knowing your neighbors. Many people, like Michael, come home and cocoon themselves in their air-conditioned homes, separating themselves from any neighborly contact. Michael, a lonely widower with a 10-year-old boy, has little touch with those who live around him. So, this emergency enables him to meet the all-American family who moved in several months ago.

As Michael's friendship with the Langs develops, he catches Oliver in a lie. He asks his girlfriend, Brooke (Hope Davis) why Oliver would lie to him. Seeing no reason for him to do so, his suspicions are aroused. Added to this, Michael is teaching a class on American terrorism and the extremist groups that are involved in such conspiracies. Suspicion turns to obsession, and then to fear or paranoia.

Arlington Road is one of my favorite movies and a real chiller-thriller. Pellington slowly builds a sense of suspense by allowing us to identify with Michael. He gives us glimpses into his backstory through perfectly timed flashbacks. We see a Ruby Ridge-like FBI assault on a rural redneck family home. We begin to understand some of the inner demons that fuel the fires of Faraaday's fear. We see his outward academic face become a fallen facade as he crumbles beneath the sheer oppression and relentlessness of the faceless enemy.

Apart from the twists and turns of the plot and the inevitability of the impending doom, what makes Arlington Road better than most films in this genre is the talent of the acting. Bridges was good as The Dude in The Big Lebowski but here he is great as an everyman in over his head. We can relate to his conflicted character. Robbins shows us the neighbor we all want, warm and charming, a soft-spoken professional. But he adds the sense of steel and menace that is needed. But Cusack is simply outstanding as the smiling homemaker. Her smile is a stiletto that pierces the heart and comes out, leaving you dead while still beholding her "caring smile."

The film is somewhat Hitchcockian. It has the same sense of momentum that his movies had. As Psycho gave us the shower scene, where something is going to happen, Arlington Road gives us Cheryl surprising Brooke at a crucial turning point, which is so tense that I jump out of my seat every time, though I know it's coming. And there are several scenes where Michael is on the brink of discovering something vital only to be caught in the act.

The film tears down the safety and security we take for granted. The suburbs of Arlington Road are not safe. So where do we look for our security? In this regard, there is no real safety in locale. Certainly, we can buy into gated communities and security systems. But criminals and conspiracists can overcome these, too, with enough desire and determination. Our real security can only be found in God. The psalmist wrote, "LORD, you have assigned me my portion and my cup; you have made my lot secure" (Psa. 16:5). Proverbs adds,"He who fears the LORD has a secure fortress" (Prov. 14:26). As we turn to Jesus, we can trust in his providential love and care. In the words of the old hymn, we will be "safe and secure from all alarms."

Ultimately, though, Arlington Road leaves me thinking about my neighbors. Do we really know who we live next to? Do they truly know who we are?

Jesus commanded his disciples, when he sent them out on mission,"I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Matt. 10:16). We, too, must be like that in life. We cannot live in crippling fear, yet we must not be pollyannas looking at the world blindly through artificially rose-colored glasses.

Jesus left us with a clear imperative when it comes to neighbors: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt. 19:19). So important is this, that it is repeated in the gospel of Matthew. In Luke's gospel it is followed by the famous parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:28-37). So, we can ill afford to live in fear of our neighbors. Instead, living in light of Jesus, we must fear God and love our neighbor.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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