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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 07/08/1999,

Arlington Road

One of the functions of the thriller genre is to let the audience get away with what it most fears and desires. In the case of the nifty but flawed Arlington Road, that would be the overthrow of society. Society here consists of the stereotypical white picket fences, working dads, soccer moms, and apple-cheeked kids -- one of whom, Brady Lang (Mason Gamble), is seen in the film's startling first image walking down a sunny street dazed, charred, and bleeding. A shocked Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) drives the kid to the hospital, to the lasting gratitude of Brady's parents, Oliver (Tim Robbins) and Cheryl (Joan Cusack).

It seems young Brady was playing with fireworks, a lapse in parental supervision that doesn't dissuade Faraday from entrusting his own son Grant (Spencer Treat Clark) with the otherwise creepily wholesome Langs. For Faraday is a little scorched himself; a professor of criminology, he's still bitter and suspicious about the death of his wife, an FBI agent, in a botched raid on a militia group. Some of that paranoia he turns on his neighbors -- but by the time he spots the plans for a federal building in Oliver's office, does a background check, and contacts one of his late wife's skeptical colleagues, his kid has been taken to a summer camp and it may already be too late.

Directed by Mark Pellington, Arlington Road plays with the viewers' fears and expectations almost as nimbly as the Langs do with Faraday: the twisted ending is one of the most diabolical in a long time, and Robbins and Cusack are so perverse and ebullient they almost overcome the film's implausibilities and inconsistencies. Bridges, though, is the bump in this Road -- lachrymose and unsympathetic, he makes armed anarchy against the system seem more desirable than frightening.

-- Peter Keough