A year after its debut at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival and a week before Julia Loktev's striking Day Night Day Night is released, Jeff Renfroe
gets his chance to turn the crank on the terrorist tinker-toy, to the terror of every Red Stater in the country, in this sophomore effort. Aping Rear Window with every tricky nuance, Renfroe's rollicking contraption of misguided paranoia and bootstrap ideologies is a nightmare both in its narrative and in its execution.
Freshly fired with kind words, accountant Terry Allen (Six Feet Under's Peter Krause
) comes home to his loving wife Marla (Kari Matchett
) with nothing to do. At first, Terry spends all day wading through want ads, flipping through the television, practicing some calisthenics, and generally being bored. Then one day a "Middle Eastern guy" named Gabe Hassan (an underwrought but riveting Khaled Abol Naga
) moves into a lower apartment across the way from Terry. With the television bursting with post-9/11 imagery, Terry becomes interested and quickly builds a case against Gabe. This leads him to an FBI agent (Richard Schiff
) and a whole new world of trouble as he tries everything from innuendo to straight-out bullying to get Gabe to confess to something. Article continues below
Civic Duty descends into a world of panic and dread without a single hesitation. Terry is the perfect white male: beautiful wife, good job, and a decent apartment with room to spare and an authentic Chinese rug. He quickly loses these things (save the wife) and soon becomes the nightmarish stuff of NPR folklore. There's something to be said for the fact that the nutjob is created only after he becomes homeless and bored, unable to start a family.
The fantasy of a vigilante birthed from listlessness is tested by an ending that can be best described as freaking daffy. The film ends, and then it ends again, but the point of this isn't fluid enough to considered political ambiguity. If anything, this paltry stab at "what if..." accepts Terry's personal guilt and then, in a momentary drift, says "wait!" As an attempt at balance, it's half-assed, and as reassurance, it's laughable and immature.
In the guise of a thriller, Renfroe has attempted to craft a statement on the American male in the modern state of paranoia. Valiant, of course, but here Renfroe seems to blame everyone but Terry himself. If anything, terrorism is a family matter and the attempt at showing Terry as truly deranged becomes unlikely and straight-out ridiculous after the whiplash ending. Renfroe blames the television shows, the loss of job, the abandonment of government, and several other factors that really could be chalked up to the filmmaker's own insecurities. Nervous or not, Renfroe's film has the stink of a bad news story used to spin an argument, when really it's just a conversation.