Civic Duty

2007, Movie, R, 94 mins


Director Jeff Renfroe and screenwriter Andrew Joiner's flashy psychological thriller wants to say something important about the dangers of a fear-mongering media and resultant ethnic profiling in an age of terrorism, but their warnings are undone by a tricky plot that tries to have it both ways while leaving the audience arguing among themselves as to what it all means.

Terry Allen's (Peter Krause) last day at his new job as an accountant begins with a meeting with his boss, a severance check and a trip to the bank, and goes downhill from there. By the time he loses his temper with a hapless teller who makes the mistake of suggesting that in the future he might want to consider banking through the ATM, Terry has clearly reached a breaking point. Returning home to the apartment complex where he lives with his wife, Marla (Kari Matchett), Terry must now explain that they probably won't get the loan they need for that four-bedroom house they'd been hoping to buy. Stressed out, angry and unable to sleep, Terri stays up late watching frightening news reports of elevated color-coded threat levels, dirty bombs and Islamic charitable institutions in the U.S. that have been accused of funneling money to terror groups abroad. Late one night, Terry is drawn to the window by the sound of a van, and he watches as a young, dark-haired man (Khaled Abol Naga) moves a few duffel bags and a couple of cardboard boxes into the vacant ground floor. Who moves into an apartment in the dead of night with so few belongings? The next morning, Terri notices him ogling Marla as she crosses the courtyard on her way to work. Stuck at home with little to do but update his resume and stew about the unfairness of life, Terry is increasingly drawn to the window, where he begins to watch for any signs of activity from the newly occupied apartment downstairs. One day while taking out the trash, Terry notices a discarded envelope from an institution calling itself the "Sons of Benevolence" that uses the Islamic crescent as a motif. Could it be one of those terror charities that Terry heard about on CVV News? A suspicious Terry decides to follow his new neighbor when he takes off in his long-term rental car, first to pick up a group of other "Middle Eastern-looking" people, then to an ATM where he surreptitiously grabs a stack of deposit envelopes. Convinced that some foul plot is afoot, Terry contacts the FBI, but a meeting with skeptical Agent Hillary (Richard Schiff) does little to reassure him. Increasingly frustrated by the FBI's unwillingness to "do something" before it's too late, Terry decides it's time to do his civic duty as a responsible, patriotic American and promptly takes leave of his senses and his sanity.

As Terry begins to lose control, the question soon becomes, "Who's the real terrorist?", a very important question to ask now that the virtues of the so-called war on terror have become clouded by news from Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. But for every moment that it's clear that Terry's fearful, distorted judgment is the real issue here, Renfroe and Joiner counter with some incriminating fact that seems to suggest that yes, the man downstairs is in fact up to no good. The movie becomes a game of sorts, and to get to the "truth" of the story we're left simply keeping score rather than examining our own perceptions and reaching any greater understanding of the very real issues at hand. leave a comment --Ken Fox

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