Arlington Road
Director: Mark Pellington
Screenplay: Ehren Kruger
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack
NY Distribution Status: now playing (Screen Gems)

Grade: B+

Here's a new one: a movie that I actively disliked for almost its entire running time, then unexpectedly found myself admiring enormously in retrospect, both for its gripping, uncommonly pessimistic (for Hollywood) conclusion and for the way that said conclusion neatly dismantled virtually every criticism that I'd entertained over the preceding two hours. This, perversely enough, is one of my supreme moviegoing pleasures, very infrequently experienced: snorting derisively at some apparent instance of blatant stupidity or clumsiness on the part of the screenwriter(s), only to discover later that I've been roundly snookered. Can't go into detail, of course, without blundering into spoiler territory, but suffice to say that Arlington Road is an Oliver Stone picture minus the self-important hectoring; a political allegory that camouflages its dissection of one American tragedy* by invoking another, much more recent one; a deeply cynical '70s-style cautionary tale (aping one classic of the era, which I won't name, in particular) craftily disguised as a textbook example of that most tired of 90s genres, the [whatever]-from-Hell thriller. Were its facade more than merely serviceable (and it is serviceable, delivering a handful of decent shocks and featuring a sublime jolly/creepy performance by Cusack), we'd be talking about a masterpiece; instead, it's an intriguing exercise in retroactive appreciation: a film that absolutely must be seen a second time, whether on the screen or in the mind's eye, to be properly enjoyed. Like The Game (the evil twin of which it could easily pass for), it's being attacked in some quarters for its logical implausibility, and once again I find such carping laughably irrelevant, akin to protesting that real people don't suddenly break into song-and-dance numbers the way Gene Kelly does; some folks evidently just don't grok the primal significance of the capital-T They. Far more worrisome, surely, is Bridges' atypically garish turn as the perpetually crazed protagonist, either a marvel of expressionistic terror or an embarrassing display of overwrought actor's hooey; when I decide which, I'll let you know.

* (I've just now skimmed about two dozen reviews of the movie without finding a single one that addressed the meaning of the title; Kruger didn't pick 'Arlington' at random, folks)