Post-9/11 paranoia is the subject of this intriguing if somewhat disjointed film by Andrew Joiner and Jeff Renfroe, in which Peter Krause plays Terry Allen, a suddenly out-of-work New York City accountant who suspects that Gabe Hassan (Khaled Abol Naga), a young Middle Eastern man who’s moved into a place across the courtyard of their apartment complex, might be a terrorist. Despite the misgivings of his increasingly concerned wife Marla (Kari Matchett), Terry spies on the fellow’s comings and goings and takes note of his visitors. He even follows Hassan in his travels and informs the FBI, in the person of harried agent Hillary (Richard Schiff) about his concerns. But when the government seems not to realize the threat he’s perceived, Terry takes matters into his own hands—with results that are tragic, though not, as a twist ending suggests, in quite the way they might seem at first.
“Civic Duty” takes on an issue that’s certainly immediate and central to the national psyche, especially since the government has—for political reasons, at least in part—made it so pressing: the fear we should have of another terrorist attack, and the watchfulness all citizens should have about it. And Renfroe’s intense treatment—he edited, using lots of visual tricks and quick cuts to up the ante, as well as directing—generates considerable tension, abetted by Dylan MacLeod’s in-your-face cinematography, which employs lots of close-ups. Of course, it’s those technical choices that give the picture a somewhat jumpy, nervous feel, but one supposes that’s intended to mirror the erratic, obsessed mentality of the protagonist in visual terms.
The performances raise the temperature, too. Krause is especially strong as the wound-up voyeur, bringing a simmering passion not only to the later scenes in which he confronts Hassan directly, but in an earlier ones when his anger at his joblessness explodes in tirades about machines replacing workers or he tries to justify his increasingly intrusive “investigations” to Marla. The actor seems unafraid to turn us off, which creates a satisfying ring of truth in the character, who becomes as it were a yuppie version of the angry lower-class character Peter Boyle played in 1970’s “Joe.” Naga brings a welcome note of ambiguity to his quarry (aided by Joiner’s canny script, which makes the activity surrounding his apartment suspicious without depicting it as unduly obvious), and Matchett a strong sense of liberal righteousness and concern to his wife. But it’s Schiff, who combines the frazzled attitude of a man beset by overwork and personal problems with the faintly comic air of a Columbo-like shamus, who provides the strongest support.
There’s the faint air of a solid cable movie to “Civic Duty”—accentuated by the fact that most of Krause’s previous work has been on the premium-channel small screen, by a physical production that shows obvious budgetary limitations, and by a tendency to go for the dramatic jugular rather than choosing a more subtle, suggestive approach. But the questions it raises are still provocative enough to make it worth seeing.