The Reeler


May 3, 2007

Civic Duty

Facile showdown works best as director's Hollywood hack calling card

There’s a lot of heavy breathing in Civic Duty about paranoia in post-9/11 America, but for all the huffing, its ideas are as simplistic as those that gust from the mouths of Messrs. O'Reilly and Maher. The plot is a beyond the pale imitation of Rear Window: Handsome-boy accountant Terry Allen (Peter Krause) is laid-off, and when not bedding his athletic blonde (and supportive!) wife (Kari Matchett), he obsesses over the possible criminal affiliations of a young Middle Eastern man (Khaled Abol Naga) who moves into the adjoining building. Soon job applications are ditched for calls to the FBI as circumstantial evidence piles up in Terry’s addled noggin. Stubble mars his cheeks, bags puff up his eyes, and could it be that this nice man becomes (gasp!) a terrorist himself?

Inverting a cliché, alas, is still a cliché, and director Jeff Renfroe and writer Andrew Joiner do little to sustain interest in this predictable tale. Each character’s path becomes clear 10 minutes in, and they never waver. No time is given to add detail to this vague outline; they simply go through the expository motions just to reach the climax, where they can pop off guns and forehead veins before shuffling off this beleaguered narrative coil. With so little to work with, Peter Krause, normally dependable for some everyman charm (check out his scruffy turn in the SciFi Channel's The Lost Room), looks lost; his descent into madness plays more like mild befuddlement. Naga is the only one who looks comfortable, his calm demeanor belying a bitterly sarcastic wit that wrings some dramatic juice out of the otherwise facile showdown between the two leads.

Stylistically, the film is Renfroe's shameless bid for future Hollywood hack work. Filled with gratuitous slow-motion, time-lapse, and hand-held camera techniques, it's a mishmash of various ideas cobbled together, more a portfolio for a future pitch meeting than a coherent vision. Most egregiously, the film uses close-ups at every possible opportunity, sometimes for entire conversations.

Cutting back and forth between yelling disembodied heads obliterates any sense of place, and it gives the actors little to do, as they engage in the “stand-and-deliver” mode of dialogue, as David Bordwell has coined it. Instead of exploring the sets, directors keep the actors motionless and film as many set-ups as possible to keep more options open in the editing. While Tony Scott has taken this style to an expressionist extreme in films like Domino, Renfroe plays it safe and boring, which is an accurate summation of the film as a whole.

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