HAPPY FRIDAY, EVERYONE!!!! What are you up to this weekend? Binge-watching Daredevil on Netflix since it came out today? Binge-watching Game of Thrones to prepare for the season 5 premiere? Not binge-watching anything and being a productive member of society? Whatever you’re up to, I hope it’s awesome. Before you settle in for binge-watching or being productive or whatever, you should probably read this April Fools write-up from the wonderful Mr. Niall of The Fluff Is Raging. Have you been to see Niall’s site? You really must. Lots of great content. He’s made a vow to post every day this month, so be sure to check out all the cool new stuff! Anyway, let’s see what films fooled Niall…
MAY WILL FOLLOW
I like to think that I’m rather clever when it comes to catching twists and surprises in movies; for the most part I probably am, but that may be simply because the sudden shock moment that turns a story on its head is such a well-used trope that I’m on the lookout for it. That said, there are a few films famous for their shocking twists that completely fooled me.
Planet of the Apes
I saw the film when I was a kid, and like most people probably, I had no idea that it was Earth all along. In hindsight, it seems pretty obvious: the fact that the apes speak English should have tipped off Charlton Heston that something was off about the place.
The Sixth Sense
Remember when M. Night Shyamalan was the guy for twisty, gimmicky, entertaining movies? You know, before he made things like Lady in the Water and The Last Airbender? I miss that guy. In The Sixth Sense Bruce Willis was dead all along!! Yes, I know if you watch it more than once you can see all the little clues that M. Night Shyamalan drops into the film.
I rewatched this a few years ago, and it has some great cinematic moments and flashes of directorial brilliance by David Fincher, and yes, just as in The Sixth Sense, there are lots of clues as to what’s really going on (Brad Pitt pops up in several subliminal moments early on in the film). But it completely fooled me when I first saw it. It hasn’t aged well, or maybe I’m just older, but watching it again wasn’t enjoyable at all. I used to think it was great; now its anti-corporate satire comes across as juvenile and whiny (great performances and soundtrack, though).
The Usual Suspects
I think one of the great achievements of the film is that even though I know exactly what’s going to happen, I can still enjoy it immensely each time I watch it.
The Crying Game
Okay, so it’s a neat little thriller and it’s also a love story and … wait … what!?!
Okay, so I was trying to decide which film to write about for Cara’s April Fools series. I was going to write something about The Prestige, a film which only half-fooled me: it’s pretty obvious that Christian Bale’s friend is actually his twin brother, but the film’s other twists did surprise me. I do like The Prestige, but for all its technical skill and fine performances, there’s something cold and off-putting about it: it may be because the two protagonists are unlikeable, or it may be that it really needs more David Bowie. Still, I was going to watch it again and write something for Cara, but I didn’t have time.
Instead, I am choosing the 1999 film Arlington Road. If you have never seen it, stop reading this, because it’s a very effective thriller, even if it has a couple of cheesy moments.
Jeff Bridges plays Michael Faraday, a widowed history professor. He and his son live in a nice suburban neighbourhood in Washington D.C. He teaches a course on political terrorism at the university – a topic very close to his heart, as we learn that his wife was a FBI agent who was killed in a Ruby Ridge-style standoff with some anti-government types.
The Faradays’ new neighbours are the Langs (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack): there is the standard barbecue scene that a film set in suburbia always has. Oliver Lang is a structural engineer doing work on a local mall, and although he’s super-friendly, Faraday begins to suspect that something is off about him. There’s confusion over his name, which may not be Oliver Lang. Faraday starts digging into his past. Lang has blueprints in his office that are very obviously not of a mall. He is, in short, a typical suburban movie villain: he’s too good to be true. The film lives and dies on the conceit that suburbia is a fiction and that you never really know your neighbours.
Lang mentions that he and his wife lived in St. Louis, and that just happens to be where there was a huge bomb of a federal building, which Faraday knows all about because it’s part of his course. Could the Langs have been involved in that?
But wait, this is all in Faraday’s head. He’s paranoid and still grieving the death of his wife. He takes his students on a field trip to the spot where his wife was killed, and he gets all emotional and wrung-out He has a friend in the FBI who urges him to give up teaching the course on terrorism because he’s too close to it (or some other line of cheesy dialogue like that: the script is clever but the lines are dreadful).
Oh, but hang on! Maybe he’s right to be paranoid. Lang changed his name from Fenimore, and Faraday finds out that when Fenimore was a teenager he was arrested for trying to blow up a government building with a pipe bomb. Now Faraday has to convince his FBI friend to investigate, but to no avail.
Faraday has a girlfriend: she sees Lang and a strange woman acting suspiciously in the mall parking lot. They swap cars. The girlfriend follows Lang to a delivery company (Liberty Couriers – very clever). She calls Michael to tell him that he might have been right about the neighbours all along, but then Mrs Lang shows up and the girlfriend is later found dead in an apparent car accident.
To complicate matters more, Faraday’s son and Lang’s son become best friends. Faraday gathers more evidence that Lang/Fenimore is definitely up to something, but just as he confronts him, he finds out that Lang has abducted his son. Lang and his cronies are planning to bomb some place soon – probably the FBI building – and if Faraday can just keep his mouth shut, he’ll see his son again in a few days after it’s all over.
Well, Faraday can’t just do that. He rents a car and sneaks out of the nighbourhood early. He sees the courier van, follows it, realises frantically calls his FBI friend to warn him. But there’s more! Faraday’s son is in the back of the van! They’re going to blow up the van with his son inside!
There’s a car chase. There’s a car crash. Lang shows up to stop him. Faraday beats him up and rushes over to the FBI building. There’s the courier van! The security guards let it in. They stop Faraday. He’s yelling about a bomb! They’re not listening to him! There’s a bomb in the van, and his son is inside!
They open the van … and it’s empty. And it’s a different driver. Cut to a shot of Faraday’s son happily stepping out of an identical van, and joining the Lang family at a museum or something. Ah, the bad guys pulled the old switcheroo.
So is there even a bomb? Well, yes, and guess where it is: in the boot of Faraday’s car. They must have planted it there when he and Lang were fighting. The bomb goes off. Everyone dies.
What a twist!
And now we learn that Faraday was targeted by Lang/Fenimore all along. The entire movie has been set up for this: they chose him because of what happened to his wife. All the little things he finds out about Lang/Fenimore; all the paranoia; all the suspicion. It was all part of the plan. He was the patsy, the guy everyone thinks acted alone because he was angry at the FBI over his wife’s murder.
The screenplay is by the guy who went on to write the Transformers movies. The director went on to direct The Mothman Prophecies and a few episodes of Cold Case. The script is neat and clever and hits all the beats of the thriller, and of course it is ridiculously contrived. In fact, without the twist ending, the script wouldn’t pass muster, as it’s filled with ludicrous coincidences (even by thriller standards). But because of the ending, as in The Usual Suspects, The Prestige or Fight Club, you forgive all the coincidences because you see them for what they really are: chess moves in an intricate, loopy story.
The script is clever but the direction is a bit bland, with that very 90s thriller feel (cocked angles, woozy steadicam shots). I was waiting for the flashback to be in desaturated colour (it isn’t, and that may be the most surprising thing about the direction).
As for the performances, they’re nothing to write home about. Robbins is a very effective villain. Beneath the nice exterior is a coldhearted son of a bitch. Bridges, meanwhile, is all over the place. He’s unhinged and shouty and panicked and wide-eyed for most of the film. He’s very un-Dude.
I don’t know if Arlington Road was a big hit or not. In the 1990s in the United States, homegrown terrorists and anti-government whackjobs were a big thing, so it probably did well. It’s by no means a bad film, but it seems to have been forgotten. Bridges and Robbins have both done much better work.
But it completely fooled me when I first saw it.