Photo by Michael TackettFROM THE FIRST FRAME OF MARK PELLINGTON'S Arlington Road, the suburban landscape is a zone of palpable dread. We see lawns, driveways, mailboxes, station wagons. But the camera isn't gliding serenely through space as it's wont to do in suburban-centered movies as different from each other as, say, Dennis the Menace and Blue Velvet. Light bleaches the image as oblique angles and violent cutting disorient the eye. A boy is hurt. A passing driver shouts for help. No one comes. There's blood — a child's blood — on the streets of the kind of neighborhood most Americans now call “home,” and by the time the credits have rolled, suburbia feels more like Serbia.

The rescuer is Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges), a widowed college professor who teaches a course in American terrorism. He's bitter and angry about the death of his wife, an FBI agent killed during a botched Ruby Ridge­style standoff. The boy's grateful parents couldn't be less like Faraday. Transplanted Kansans, the Langs — Oliver (Tim Robbins), a structural engineer, and Cheryl (Joan Cusack), a fanatically hospitable homemaker — blend perfectly with their characterless, affluent subdivision. They welcome Faraday and his son into their orbit of backyard barbecues, soccer mom­isms and scout camps, but Faraday senses Oliver is hiding something, perhaps even his real identity. Soon he's opening Oliver's mail, verifying his academic transcripts and generally acting like a self-appointed vigilante of the sort he professes to despise. Is he paranoid? Insane from grief? Or could Oliver really be a smiling farm-belt fascist capable of putting his engineering skills to extremist political uses? As Oliver himself says, “We're not in Kansas anymore.”

Indeed we're not. Pellington and writer Ehren Kruger play some deft Ping-Pong with our expectations and sympathies. Faraday is flawed, perhaps deluded, and willing to trample the Bill of Rights where his neighbors are concerned. The Langs are loving, devoted parents imbued with prairie values. Oliver's heartland heritage is that of Jefferson's unsullied ideal American, the landowning yeoman-farmer: His real name may even be “Fenimore.” The way Pellington shoots the Langs suggests the debasement of a quintessentially “American” iconography: At one point he frames them to echo Grant Wood's American Gothic (their Aryan-looking son Brady is played by Mason Gamble, who once played Dennis the Menace). And when Faraday's wife is shot dead (in flashback), it's by a farmer's wife holding a baby and a sawed-off shotgun — a horribly degraded version of Dorothea Lange's famous migrant-mother pietà. The subversion of all this imagery implies that fascism and bigotry can rise directly out of our most cherished national myths.

It's too bad then that the Langs sometimes deteriorate into overlit Midwestern grotesques — particularly Cusack, with her wide-eyed Illinois Eve Arden­isms (which also provide the film's best shock). The couple is painted with a broader brush than the other characters, which indicates laziness on the filmmakers' part. Late in the movie there's an unwieldy lurch away from the paranoia that Alan J. Pakula handled so well in the '70s (it would spoil the ending, by the way, to name the Pakula film from which Kruger and Pellington have lifted their structure wholesale). What follows is more redolent of the last reels of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Trust no one! You're next!

Despite its flaws, Arlington Road romps home as an absorbing, unpredictable thriller. What carries it, finally, is Bridges and the conviction he brings to the material. His body of work runs like a golden thread through the last 30 years of American cinema. His choices have been interesting enough for his mere involvement in a movie to function as a stamp of quality, and his résumé feels akin to a one-man genre. Bad Company, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Rancho Deluxe, Stay Hungry, Cutter's Way, The Big Lebowski — a pretty boy who's also a Hollywood brat should be more selfish, more vain and much less subtle and varied as an actor than Bridges has always been. Arlington Road benefits greatly from his presence, even if you occasionally suspect that it doesn't quite deserve him.

ARLINGTON ROAD | Directed by MARK PELLINGTON | Written by EHREN KRUGER | Produced by TOM GORAI, MARC SAMUELSON and PETER SAMUELSON | Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide

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