Americans used to think of terrorists as alien intruders, but events of recent years have focused attention on home-grown militants preaching the rhetoric of patriotism and tradition.
Do such ideologues really believe they're waging a just war for long-lost American values? Are there elements within the American experience that inadvertently nurture - or even cause - subversive movements whose paranoid ideas may erupt into awful violence?
The new thriller "Arlington Road" doesn't probe very deeply into these issues, but it raises them with a vividness that makes it one of the summer's most thought-provoking pictures.
Jeff Bridges plays Michael Faraday, a widowed professor who divides his time between raising a young son, wooing a former graduate student, and teaching a college course on American terrorism. He also broods over his wife's death in a pointless shootout between her FBI unit and a gun-owning rural family.
He's not exactly a loner, but he's so preoccupied that it takes an odd accident in the neighborhood to get him acquainted with the new couple (played by Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack) who've moved in nearby. While they seem as nice and normal as anyone on their suburban block, Michael comes to think they're hiding a secret, and his knowledge of radical militancy leads his thoughts in ominous directions.
Could these churchgoing, family-loving folks be at the center of a terrorist plot? Or is his own history causing him to see violence and insanity where they simply don't exist?
Moviegoers looking for light summer entertainment might not want to travel down "Arlington Road," since it pursues these questions to grim and unsettling conclusions. But it's remarkably well-acted, and director Mark Pellington keeps Ehren Kruger's screenplay moving so inexorably that you almost don't notice its occasional lapses into far-fetched coincidence.
In all, it's the closest thing to a truly Hitchcockian thriller that we've seen in a long time.
*Rated R; contains disturbing violence.