Hollywood conspiracy thrillers draw their nemeses from each era’s conception of the Other: Nazi and Jap spies in the ’40s; commies and space aliens in the ’50s; vengeful nature in the disaster movies of the ’60s and ’70s; Arabs and Asians in the xenophobic ’80s and ’90s. But in the most disturbing and memorable paranoid thrillers, the enemy is Us: malign corporations (The Conversation, The Parallax View) or sinister forces masquerading as Us (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Manchurian Candidate).

Arlington Road gives the latter tradition a contemporary spin. Its villains are superpatriot zealots posing as bland suburbanites while plotting to bring down the federal government. The film’s anti-right-wing agenda cannily exploits public anxiety in the age of Ruby Ridge and Oklahoma City, but director Mark Pellington and first-time screenwriter Ehren Kruger lack the finesse to realize the potential of their provocative theme. The result is too intriguing to dismiss but too clumsy to applaud.

Jeff Bridges stars as Michael Faraday, a George Washington University professor who teaches a course in the history of terrorism. (The curriculum, which ranges from John Wilkes Booth to the Unabomber, resembles a nonmusical version of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins.) Michael has a personal obsession with this subject. His wife, Leah, a junior FBI operative, was senselessly killed during a miscalculated faceoff with an anti-government group at Copper Creek (read: Ruby Ridge), for which the Feds refuse to provide an explanation or accept responsibility. A haunted, embittered single father casually involved with Brooke (Hope Davis), his long-suffering grad-student girlfriend, Michael lives on the edge of his frayed nerves, often breaking down in the middle of his lectures.

His anxiety intensifies when he encounters a family that moves into his Reston neighborhood (unconvincingly impersonated by a Houston suburb). His son initiates a friendship with Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack) and their three children. This seemingly benign all-American family strikes tormented Michael as surreally archetypal. When he stumbles upon blueprints in mall-designer Oliver’s study that resemble a St. Louis (read: Oklahoma City) federal building bombed by domestic terrorists, he begins harboring suspicions about the Langs. Brooke tries to talk Michael out of what she insists is his growing paranoia, but the more he snoops on the Langs, the more menacing they seem. Matters come to a head when individuals close to Michael die in improbable mishaps, and he becomes convinced that his neighbors are about to execute a plot to blow up the FBI building.

In outline, this sounds like powerfully engrossing stuff, a suspense thriller drawing on the FBI’s controversial handling of disaffected fundamentalist and superpatriot groups, and the anti-government sentiments promulgated by right-wing extremists. But Kruger’s diddling screenplay squanders too much time—the entire first half of the picture—asking us to question whether Michael has uncovered an actual conspiracy or merely suffers from depressive delusions. (Clearly, the former option has to be true, or Arlington Road would be pointless.) Once the Langs’ iniquitous intentions are confirmed, the movie degenerates into a series of clumsily executed action sequences, capped by a formulaic vehicle chase through Federal Triangle.

Pellington, who made his feature debut with the misbegotten coming-of-age saga Going All the Way, lacks the formal control to bring these scenes to life. In Hitchcock’s paranoia classics Rear Window and North by Northwest, the master of suspense storyboarded every image to maximize tension. Pellington’s sloppy compositions and disjointed continuity leave viewers more bewildered than invigorated. His reliance on ostentatious crane and Steadicam shots defuses rather than intensifies his narrative. Clearly, he has not yet attained the directorial expertise to craft a film that demands metronomic stylistic precision.

The actors give their all, although none are cast to advantage. Bridges, the most relaxed leading man since Spencer Tracy, pushes too hard to appear wholly convincing as a man at the end of his emotional tether. Robbins, a well-known supporter of progressive causes, must have relished the change-of-pace opportunity to play a reactionary terrorist, but, until the final reels, the role straitjackets his trademark idiosyncrasy beneath a conformist veneer. The same holds true for Cusack, who is allotted scant screen time and only displays a glimpse of what she’s capable of in a climactic moment when her placid suburban-matron visage suddenly contorts into a Joker-like grimace. Hillary Clinton-ish Davis, who, like Cusack, has forged a reputation as a zesty comic actress, understandably can’t figure out a way to enliven her thankless assignment.

Arlington Road deserves kudos for the uncompromising bleakness of its denouement, a surprise punch that casts all that precedes it into a despairingly nihilistic perspective. And the movie’s shrewd notion of recasting Don Siegel’s allegorical, anti-McCarthyist Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ sci-fi plot as an explicitly political thriller could, and should, have yielded a contemporary classic. Too bad it fell into the wrong hands. CP