Civic Duty

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 10/09/07 01:49:23

"Sadly, not the epic tale of a Honda repairman."
3 stars (Just Average)

“Civic Duty” is almost over before the movie finally says its buzzword: terrorist. The characters go out of their way to avoid using such a term, perhaps to sidestep the sensation that such a word would make their prejudices too real, perhaps to keep from making one’s paranoid thoughts seem silly by locking them down to such an absurd possibility, perhaps because with 9/11 on the minds of everyone involved, such a word is so obvious it never needs to be spoken.

It’s probably somewhere in between all three, and the way the screenplay tackles language is a key factor in the film’s success: so much goes unspoken, leaving the actors to fill in the gaps with their performances. It works. “Civic Duty” is a constricted ensemble piece, and its core cast ably handles the constant ratcheting of the tension without letting their characters snap.

And yet this is far from a solid film. While the screenplay, from first time scribe Andrew Joiner, handles character and dialogue very well, it rambles a bit too much, allowing the tension to sag under unnecessary scenes and the occasional hackneyed plot device. This is a brilliant short story stretched out to feature length, and the padding is too loose to make it the great film it could have been.

The movie uses Hitchcockian paranoia as a launching pad for a discussion of our collective post-9/11 psyche. Terry (Peter Krause) just lost his job, right at the height of national tension. Bored and frustrated, he takes increasing notice with his new neighbor (Khaled Abol Naga), who is obviously suspicious because he is “Middle Eastern” and hangs out with “other Middle Eastern guys.” Terry’s study of this young man quickly turns to obsession; his wife (Kari Matchett) eventually leaves him, and the FBI agent (Richard Schiff) whom Terry called for help warns him to back off.

There’s some marvelous stuff here, whip smart social commentary that offers up some very intriguing questions, as the movie becomes increasingly vague as to the neighbor’s status as terrorist or target of bigotry. Joiner’s script repeatedly shakes our understanding of the characters like an Etch-A-Sketch, starting over again and again as new clues present themselves. But either possible outcome offers a pile of moral quandaries: If Terry is right and the neighbor is a terrorist, how far should he go beyond the consent of law enforcement? If he is wrong, is his paranoia justifiable due to the clues provided?

By refusing to state the neighbor’s status while constantly reworking our views of the character, Joiner and director Jeff Renfroe challenge both sides of the political spectrum. Lefties must strongly contend with the possibility that sometimes the profile really does fit, and it’s not always a case of racial injustice. Righties, however, must strongly contend with the reverse. “Civic Duty” lives squarely in the grey area of politics and warfare.

But it also lives squarely in the bland area of mid-level thriller. All of this conjecture and debate get bogged down with blah suspense scenes (Terry breaks into the neighbor’s apartment, then must hide when he comes home too early) and a third act that puts the emphasis a bit too much on Terry’s mental state (including an “oooh, gotcha!” epilogue that doesn’t quite negate all the questions they movie presents, but it sure negates the strength of those questions while it also threatens to turn all involved into generic movie characters stuck beyond the reality of the rest of the film). Just when the story’s getting clever, along comes a hackneyed suspense sequence or trite plot twist to dumb it down a few notches.

And yet it remains solid enough to make for a quality conversation starter, thanks to all those right notes and strong performances from a top notch cast. The movie intentionally raises far more questions than it’s inclined to answer, and if we can ignore the plot’s too-often dips into cliché, we just might walk away with a lot on our minds.

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