In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock capped his seminal-masterpiece, 'Psycho,' with a brilliant twist ending that placed his audience in direct conflict with their expectations. Ever since those early days of cinematic naivety, films have employed shocking twist-endings in an attempt to catch viewers off guard. In each instance, the twist is a literal roll of the dice, with films succeeding and failing on the merits of their endings alone. Movies like 'The Sixth Sense' and 'The Usual Suspects' gained critical acclaim and repeat business, while flicks like 'Smokin' Aces' and 'The Village' unraveled alongside their left-field reveals.
'Arlington Road' tells the tale of a professor named Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) who begins to suspect his new neighbors, Oliver (Tim Robbins) and Cheryl Lang (Joan Cusack), are domestic terrorists. The hint of this threat hits too close to home for Michael -- his wife was an FBI agent killed in the line of duty during an anti-terrorist operation. As Michael moves from curiosity to paranoia, he begins to spy on the Langs and report his findings to a family friend in the FBI (Robert Gossett).
Despite his pleas, however, Michael can't get anyone to look into the seemingly harmless Langs. His girlfriend Brooke (Hope Davis) thinks he's imagining things and the FBI questions his motives and his personal bias in the situation. To make matters worse, his nine-year-old son, Brady (Mason Gamble), is forming a potentially dangerous relationship with the Langs. Throughout it all, Michael remains determined to discover the truth and put a stop to whatever devious scheme his neighbors are putting into motion.
To be sure, 'Arlington Road' isn't a perfect film. As I watched it, I found myself way too aware of the fact that it was setting up a careful series of clues to unravel. As such, the final twist doesn't appear unexpectedly (like it does in the aforementioned 'The Sixth Sense' and 'The Usual Suspects'), but instead dances in the background making its eventual appearance an inevitability. And to its detriment, it isn't the sort of ending that can be easily discerned -- in fact, the meticulous clues seem to have little bearing on the outcome. As a result, 'Arlington Road' isn't the kind of film I would revisit time and time again.
However, the lead actors invest so much of themselves into their performances that somehow 'Arlington Road' miraculously transcends its ending. It becomes a good film regardless of its final "gotcha" before the credits roll. The film's true twist is this -- it's impossible to figure out the ending before it happens. In that regard, the story is satisfying and successful because it puts the viewer in Michael's shoes from the beginning to the bitter end.
Bridges effectively sells his increasing paranoia and Robbins delivers a sinister undertone to every line that comes out of his mouth. To their great credit, the two actors have a tense interplay that generates a palatable on-screen electricity. Even before the first act has come to a close, the film has built up a considerable momentum despite the fact that there isn't a lot happening outside of Michael's mind. In the end, this hero/villain relationship keeps the movie strong even if its script nearly collapses under plot contrivances and convenient exposition.
Your overall enjoyment of 'Arlington Road' will still likely come down to the ending. If it hits you like it hit me, you'll consider the film to be on a higher plateau. If you furrow your brow and fling your arms in the air, you'll remember the entire movie as a flop. Give it a rent and hope for the best -- if you're like me, you'll dig the way the film manipulates the viewer in the same manner that it manipulates Michael.
Presented in 1080p with the MPEG-2 codec, this Blu-ray edition of 'Arlington Road' is a decent upgrade from the standard DVD, but it fails to impress as much as other catalog titles released in high definition.
The color palette is intentionally washed out, but still has some great instances of primary power. Skintones are natural and detail is suitably sharper than the soft transfer of the DVD. The video quality even improves a bit as the film progresses -- after the first act, the image pops particularly well and provides a convincing level of depth to the picture. Black levels are generally on target and the film's contrast is intentionally stark but comfortable.
However, some of the darker scenes can't resolve the deepest shadows on the screen and delineation suffers as a result. There's also a fairly consistent issue with contrast wavering and grain spiking -- some scenes look great, but others prove the print is in need of a remaster. I didn't catch any major problems with source noise, but I did notice several instances of color banding in scenes with flat expanses of color (like gray skies and clouds of smoke).
All in all, fans of 'Arlington Road' are likely to appreciate the noticeable upgrade provided by this slightly above-average Blu-ray release, but I couldn't help still wanting more. I've said it before and I'll continue to scream it to the heavens -- catalog titles really shouldn't be released in high-def unless they've been remastered to take advantage of the format.
'Arlington Road' features an uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround mix (16-bit/48 kHz/4.6 Mbps) that's hardly discernible from the disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 track (640 kbps). Dialogue is slightly crisper and the dynamics have a bit more breadth, but the two benefit and suffer from the same positives and negatives.
On the plus side, dialogue is well prioritized and effects shift across the front channels with natural pans. 'Arlington Road' isn't an action movie, but its action beats drum up plenty of earthy booms from the subwoofer. Treble tones are generally stable and only waver during the car chase in the last ten minutes of the film. The soundfield tends to hover in the front channels, but several scenes (including the one I just mentioned) do come to life in the rear speakers.
The biggest downside to both audio tracks is that the rear channels are too subdued for the majority of the film. Interior acoustic effects seemingly occur at random times -- I was only able to immerse myself in the soundscape during louder scenes that were specifically trying to ratchet up the tension level. It gave me the impression that the sound designers concentrated all of their efforts on key scenes and forgot to inject much life into the stretches of the film that focus on character development.
All things considered, both tracks are fairly solid -- they're just not given very much to work with.
The Blu-ray edition of 'Arlington Road' includes all of the primary special features from the standard DVD released in 1999. The only missing element from that earlier disc is a text-based "Talent File" detailing the actors' filmographies, which is now terribly outdated.
The first thing most fans will head for is the feature commentary with actor Jeff Bridges and director Mark Pellington ('The Mothman Prophecies'). Bridges is likable enough, but seems shy and defers to Pellington throughout the track. Luckily, this isn't necessarily a bad thing because the director thoroughly discusses his work with the cast, the various stages of the film's script, the on-set shooting atmosphere, and the eventual reaction to the film upon its release. He talks at length about the satirical elements in the film and the political overtones layered into each scene.
Next up is a surprisingly comprehensive behind-the-scenes featurette titled "Hidden Vulnerability: The Making of Arlington Road" (21 minutes). This one moves along at a nice clip with interviews and on-set footage, focusing on the character and story development. I was particularly happy to hear Robbin's thoughts on the film since he was absent from the commentary -- everyone involved in the film certainly seemed to put a lot of thought into their roles.
Finally, an alternate ending is provided with an in-depth introduction by Pellington. He talks about multiple ideas that were considered for the ending before eventually showing the one that came closest to making it in the film.
(Note all of the video-based supplements listed above are presented in 480i/p video only.)
No matter what you've read or heard, 'Arlington Road' is worth renting -- just be warned that your love or hate of the film will entirely come down to your opinion of the ending. This Blu-ray release is more or less middle of the road. The video, audio and supplements are all solid enough, but they don't stack up to the best high-def catalog releases. Still, this one's certainly worth a look.