The screaming all but drowns out the provocative arguments in “Civic Duty,” a tightly coiled psychological thriller that takes disquieting stock of one man’s post-9/11 paranoia. Unfolding largely within the confines of a single apartment complex, the well-structured scenario is arresting but ill-served by an overly fussy visual treatment from helmer Jeff Renfroe, while Peter Krause’s increasingly psychotic performance as an amateur snoop frequently threatens to cross the line between forceful and off-putting. Volatile combo of claustrophobic suspense and topical concerns could propel pic to limited commercial success in specialized arenas.
Terry Allen (Krause), a recently laid-off accountant, has a sudden surplus of home-alone time that gives him plenty of opportunities to spy on Gabe Hassan (Khaled Abol Naga), the “Middle Eastern guy” who has just moved in to a unit across the courtyard.
Against the well-reasoned protests of his wife Marla (Kari Matchett), Terry grows obsessed with proving the new neighbor is up to no good, constantly monitoring him from his window, following him in his car, and even alerting an FBI agent (a wryly amusing Richard Schiff) about Gabe’s alleged suspicious activities.
These activities — cleverly worked out in Andrew Joiner’s screenplay to appear both innocuous and suggestive — include Gabe receiving large sums of money from an organization called the Sons of Benevolence and stocking beakers full of dangerous-looking chemicals in his apartment.
As Terry’s hysterical theorizing alienates Marla and draws sharp rebukes from the FBI official, pic sketches an engrossing but frequently overblown portrait of psychic meltdown, aggravated by postmodern anxieties — color-coded terrorism warnings, rising gas prices, everything on the news — that are arguably too on-the-nose in their grim familiarity.
Not helping matters is pic’s aggressively fancy style. Renfroe, who also edited, deploys rapid dissolves, extreme closeups and conspicuously off-kilter compositions that, accentuated by Eli Krantzberg’s plinking musical score, actually work to dilute tension.
Krause, best known for HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” blends varying degrees of cockiness, stubbornness, obsessive paranoia, extreme sarcasm and (least attractive of all) self-pity in a blistering turn that seems deliberately determined to repel the viewer’s sympathy. (Few will disagree with Marla when she accuses him of sounding like a “right-wing whackjob.”) Screamingly loud perf becomes borderline ludicrous in the second half, as Terry forces a violent confrontation that will have any rational viewer rooting for the alleged terrorist.
That’s the effect Renfroe is after, anyway, and to his credit, pic does effectively raise questions about the limits of racial profiling and personal responsibility. Tale ends with a bitterly ironic twist that leaves room for a measure of ambiguity.
Dylan MacLeod’s cinematography bathes the entire film in a glum greenish light that’s as omnipresent as Eli Krantzberg’s plinking musical score.