Michael Faraday (Bridges) is a high school history teacher who specializes in the subject of terrorism in America. His particular fervor in that subject is fired by the loss of his wife, an FBI agent who was killed in a fiasco like the one at Ruby Ridge, Idaho. He and his son Grant (Spencer Treat Clark) live in the suburbs, and Michael has taken up with his former teaching assistant, Brooke (Hope Davis), whom Grant has yet to fully accept.
As Michael is driving home one day, he discovers a young boy (Mason Gamble) wandering in the middle of the street, bleeding, his hand seriously burned and broken as if by a bomb. Not even knowing the boy's name, he rushes him to the hospital. Later he meets the child's shocked parents, Oliver and Cheryl Lang (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack); it turns out they are new neighbors who just moved in. They thank Michael for saving their son Brady, sparking a new friendship under these unfortunate circumstances. No real explanation is given for the mishap simply that he and his friends must have been playing with fireworks or something.
While Brady heals, the two families become more and more close; the boys play together (along with the Langs' two daughters) and the four adults exchange dinners and conversation. The Langs discover Michael's passion in his class subject, and Michael learns that Oliver is an architect and a graduate of Kansas U. But a piece of misdirected mail sets Michael on a trail that leads him to uncover some disturbing facts about his new neighbor. Brooke is horrified with his nosy behavior, admonishing him for conducting this investigation. However, as he does more searching, using progressively more extreme methods and enlisting the grudging aid of his wife's former partner (Robert Gossett), he is increasingly alarmed about what kind of person lives next door.
After allowing Grant to go to scout camp with Brady, Michael finds that Oliver's real name is William Fenimore, a convicted criminal who served time for trying to deliver a pipe bomb. He has changed his name to Oliver Lang, a man from the same town in Kansas who died suddenly. Then Oliver catches him checking up on him, Grant turns up missing, and, as they say, the plot thickens.
This film is excellent for the first three-quarters of its running length. Pellington's pacing and his use of dramatic lighting and music highlight the growing sense of terror in Kruger's taut script. Bridges and Robbins work together brilliantly to illustrate this tension. But when the final reel kicks in and events begin to unravel, somehow the credibility is lost. The turning point is when we find out about Oliver's real intentions. His character does an about-face that is a little too sudden to be believed. But the climax is definitely thrilling, and the outcome definitely a surprise. ****½
Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican
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