Judge Daniel MacDonald isn't a big fan of Hondas.
The war on terror just came home.
The paranoid thriller usually involves some complex government conspiracy, a huge cast of characters, and grand, eye catching locations; not so with Civic Duty, an intimate tale which mostly confines its four main characters to two apartments. Does it maintain the inherent tension of its topical premise?
Facts of the Case
Recently unemployed, Terry Allen (Peter Krause, Six Feet Under) has a lot of time on his hands, with mailing out resumes and obsessively watching terrorism-related news. But when "Middle Eastern Guy" (Khaled Abol Naga) moves into the apartment next door, his priorities shift dramatically, and, the more he watches the actions of his new neighbor, the more convinced he is that he's stumbled upon a terrorist plot.
Initially encouraged, then dissuaded, by FBI agent Tom Hilary (Richard Schiff, Ray), Allen is sure that he's right, and no amount of pleading from his increasingly frustrated wife Marla (Kari Matchett, Angel Eyes) will stop him from taking matters into his own hands.
Allen knows he's paranoid, but does that mean he's wrong?
The concept of the potential terrorist next door could go at least a couple of different ways: it could end up an intellectual treatise on the use of fear as a political tool and its social consequences, or be a wish-fulfillment fantasy featuring a brave American single-handedly taking down an evil terrorist plot. Fortunately, Civic Duty takes a third path, constructing a just complex enough situation to keep us interested, wondering if Allen could possibly be right, without bludgeoning the audience with political posturing.
Not that there isn't some sort of message here—the omnipresent newscasts, featuring almost exclusively anti-terror talk, are clearly meant as an indictment of the media's handling of post-9/11 America, and when combined with director Jeff Renfroe's "more is more" approach to editing tricks and Ritalin-craving camerawork, the effect is anything but subtle. Further, the whole concept is reflective of racial profiling policies and the idea that everyone must do his or her part to stop terrorism before it happens. But the arguments made on these issues are simplistic and beside the point—more than anything Civic Duty is trying to be a taut, intense thriller that keeps you guessing throughout; on this score it is largely successful.
The characters of Civic Duty are surprisingly well-developed, and despite it being a dialogue-heavy picture, exposition is handled fairly gracefully. The even, deliberate pacing allows us to become familiar with Allen as his strengths and weaknesses are revealed long before they'll come into play, resulting in even his more outrageous actions coming across as fairly consistent. Rather than simply portraying an angry man who's lost his job and is now auditioning for the lead in a musical retelling of Falling Down, Peter Krause gives us plenty of clues about other factors leading to his becoming unhinged, portraying the man with a good deal of empathy and nuance. We don't always like Allen (actually, we rarely do), but we usually understand where he's coming from.
Schiff makes the most of his small role as Allen's FBI contact: when we first meet him, he is interrupted by a phone call, and although we only hear is side of the brief conversation we're given just enough to imply an entire back-story, mostly due to Schiff's tone and body language. The man is a master of understatement who I hope will one day get a picture of his own to lead.
Allen takes small but increasingly bold steps toward discovering—and revealing—the truth about his mysterious neighbor, such that by the third act we are surprised at how deep a hole he's managed to dig for himself. And yet, even when he has long since departed from the station of rationality, we're never sure whether or not he's right; hints are dropped to both support and refute his theory, keeping us on edge all the way. Even the ending, which I expected to be unsatisfying, is both unexpected and exactly what the story demands, although one minor element (which I won't reveal here) strikes as somewhat contrived and false.
What prevents Civic Duty from being a truly excellent thriller are the incessant camera and editing tricks employed by Renfroe (One Point O). His refusal to just let a shot be, without using double exposure, flash frames, speed changes, and a host of other derivative devices is both jarring and counter-productive in building suspense. Sure, we're meant to be taken inside Allen's increasingly distorted frame of mind through the constant bombardment of whatever Final Cut Pro could do, but Krause manages to put that across himself quite well, thank you very much. Civic Duty's concept is strong enough to be engaging without such an over-the-top execution.
According to the IMDb, Civic Duty was shot on 35 mm film, but I'd be willing to bet it was actually sourced from digital video. Regardless, the DVD has lots of digital grain, especially in the frequent dark scenes—not necessarily a bad thing, as the grainy image adds a sense of realism to the proceedings. Otherwise, the picture is sharp and free from compression artifacts or edge enhancement. Audio, while in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, isn't given a whole lot to do, and levels are a bit lower than on most discs, but dialogue is clear and distortion-free.
No special features, save the theatrical trailer, are included.
Despite a borderline-annoying directing style, Civic Duty is a compelling thriller with surprisingly well-developed characters and a mostly satisfying ending. It's a good weekend rental.
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