"What's he building in there?" Tom Waits asks, on a deliciously spooky track from his new Mule Variations disc. "He's hiding something from the rest of us." A variation on that question consumes nearly every waking moment of earnest George Washington University history professor Michael Faraday in the new thriller "Arlington Road": What sort of mayhem are his neighbors up to, how will he discover their dark secret, and what must he do to prevent the evil from spreading to his own household?
Faraday, a widower living with his puppy-dog-cute young son, Grant (Spencer Treat Clark), in a comfortable middle-class suburb of Washington, D.C., first encounters the all-too-friendly Lang family next door after rushing their oldest child, Brady (Mason Gamble), to the hospital, where he's treated for potentially fatal wounds stemming from a mysterious explosion.
Oliver Lang (Tim Robbins), a buttoned-down structural engineer, and his cherubic wife, Cheryl (Joan Cusack), repay that brave kindness with an avalanche of hospitality, inviting Michael and his pretty, younger girlfriend, Brooke (Hope Davis), over to dinner and encouraging a budding friendship between the two boys.
All is rosy in the land of soccer moms, backyard barbecues and late-night beers on the patio. There's trouble in this paradise, though.
Faraday, for starters, remains haunted by the death of his wife (Laura Poe), an F.B.I. agent murdered by a group of redneck extremists during a meaningless standoff meant to remind viewers of Ruby Ridge. "Leah died for her country," says her old partner, Whit (Robert Gossett), a tight-lipped but genuinely concerned family friend. "She shouldn't have," Faraday shoots back, with more than a touch of bitterness.
The grieving professor's anger is only intensified by the subject matter of a course he's teaching on terrorism. One lecture takes place during a field trip to the location of that F.B.I. shoot-out. Another session is devoted to the recent bombing of an I.R.S. office in St. Louis, supposedly masterminded by a single man. More than 60 people died in the blast, and the filmmakers, for better and worse, here and later employ footage of the real Oklahoma City bombing to illustrate the carnage attendant to the fictional explosion.
The neighbors, what's more, are beginning to act creepy. "He wishes someone had to pay (for his mother's death)," Oliver tells Michael about a conversation with Grant. Michael begins to catch his new best friend in lies -- about a set of blueprints, a college affiliation and, eventually, his real name -- and his suspicions begin to mount, much to the chagrin of the pooh-poohing Brooke. What's real, and what's imagined?
Director Mark Pellington, who made his feature debut with 1996's lackluster "Going All the Way," surprisingly enough generates serious suspense with his sophomore effort, effectively drawing us into a maze of fear and paranoia. Like body snatchers (a.k.a. commies) of the '50s, freaky militia types seemingly are hiding behind every closed curtain.
Momentarily, there's a collective gasp of relief, as all is apparently explained by Oliver, who confronts Michael, and then comes clean about his teen-age crime and his lifelong effort to repay his debt and keep his children from being harmed by the truth of their father's past. Suffice it to say that the uncomfortable resolution of the investigation doesn't arrive until much later.
Bridges is believable as a father stuck with a terrible choice, Robbins is chilling as a happy homeowner with evil crawling beneath his skin and Cusack is similarly frightening as a Stepford wife willing to stick with the program. "Arlington Road," although erring with a bit of didacticism, is more than a little chilling.