Civic Duty: Paranoid Delusion in Post 9/11 America

Civic Duty. 2006. Directed by Jeff Renfroe. Screenplay by Andrew Lanter.
Starring Peter Krause, Kari Matchett, Ian Tracey, & Richard Schiff. Christal Films/Sepia Films/Landslide Pictures/Movie Central.
Rated 14A. 95 minutes.

POSTER Jeff Renfroe’s first debut feature One Point O is a thriller built on mystery and paranoia, so it’s no surprise Civic Duty is similarly styled. Although, this film digs into the paranoia of the right-wing after the events of September 11th. Of course this goes to an extreme, but that’s the point. Renfroe does a solid job directing this through its mentally twisty-turny corridors. The cinematography from Dylan Macleod captures a psychological perspective and plants us firmly in the middle of the main character’s head. With good directorial choices, as well as solid editing from Renfroe himself, plus the camerawork, as well as an amazing score that spells CLASSIC, Civic Duty pulls us into the post-9/11 hysteria that felt ready to pop in America.
Watch it nowadays and it takes on new life again, as the Syrian refugees come into America and Canada. Here in the North, even people I never thought of as racist/xenophobic are terrified of increasing immigration in light of ISIS. Considering the phobias and irrational fear after large events in the name of terrorism, Renfroe’s movie is interesting and it provokes some genuine thought. Not to mention the last few minutes, which have divided people (though if you’re paying attention it comes as obvious). Either way, this is a crackerjack little film with a heavy theme with an impressive performance out of Peter Krause.
Terry Allen (Peter Krause) is an accountant. Or, he was. Recently he got laid off, which he has to tell his wife Marla (Kari Matchett) at home. She’s supportive at first, and knows that he’ll get back on his feet. But during the day at home, Terry is bombarded by news, media constantly flying at him with George W. Bush decrying terrorists all around America, supposedly lying in wait for their chance to strike. Then a young man named Gabe Hassan (Khaled Abol Naga) moves in downstairs in the building where Terry and Marla live. Terry starts to believe Gabe is actually a terrorist, hiding among the normal residents of the complex. Slowly, Terry starts to dive further and further into paranoia, beginning to see things he suspects are suspicious. He even follows Gabe now and then.
When Terry finally calls the FBI and meets Agent Tom Hilary (Richard Schiff), things get serious. And once both Agent Hilary and Marla express their belief that Terry is only paranoid, he decides to take things into his own hands.
The focus on the money in Terry’s hands early in the film, as he gets his change back after buying postage at the post office, is a strong little point. Because this sort of throws us into his perspective, seeing things from his point-of-view. You can feel the stress and the pressure on him with this close, tight frame on the American dollars exchanged.
Also interesting is an early conversation between Terry and his wife. He refers to a man as “Middle Eastern“, and you can obviously tell she has a slight problem with the way Terry says it. While yes, it isn’t racist, the fact is clear: Terry sees people in terms of race. He could’ve used other words to describe the man, but chose those first.
Civic Duty is a paranoid thriller, often reminiscent of a Hitchcock film, both in the way it is shot, as well as how the score plays. When people call this a post-9/11 Rear Window, there’s a very good reason for such a comparison. So many scenes are even better for how the music ratchets up the suspense and the tension, as we ride alongside Terry and his paranoia. The editing helps, too. Almost every second scene has FOX News or a similar station playing reports on Muslims, terrorism, immigration, and of course – George W. Bush spouting off the written lines of rhetoric he was given. These elements combine to make the whole film uneasy, which is great because we’re, at times, not sure where the conclusion is headed. Going in, we almost assume the outcome will be that Terry is overreacting; a massive overreaction. But there are points the plot sucks us into his head, then the editing style, the score, the way things are framed and given to us, everything points to: how can you really know? So without a doubt the entire aesthetic of Civic Duty is a major part of its success.
Above all else, the film gains strength in its discussion of tough issues. Particularly, once Gabe and Terry engage in a truly strenuous conversation that these things come out to the fullest. Gabe starts bringing up all the conflicts in which America has been embroiled, mostly by their own choosing and intervention (wanted or unwanted), from Vietnam to Cuba, to all sorts of others. Most importantly, once we discover the truth of what’s been happening (re: Terry) it makes an excellent statement about paranoid racism and right-wing extremism. I specifically began to think of articles and other literature written about how times of economic downturn can make the right-wing extremists get even worse, pushing people to become more racist, more opposed to immigration, and so on. While I don’t think the very end is the best ending, something had to happen. Not that the conclusion is unwarranted, it’s merely a bit of a stretch; nothing major, just a little too convenient in some sense. The result of what happens to Terry could still have gone the same way without needing him to commit a particular act. Either way, this ruins nothing, and the message of the film comes across as strong as it can. And best of all? The last scene really hammers things home, while also making us wonder what will come of Terry, down the road.
Civic Duty‘s a definite 4-star film. While I could’ve used a bit more in certain senses – the pace lag at a few points, the screenplay could’ve drawn things out a slight bit more and added another 10-15 minutes to make that happen – overall, this is an excellent thriller built on fear, paranoia, and also on lies, deception. Part of this movie speaks to the fact many out there expounding upon their racist views often have something in their lives making them feel negatively about themselves yet turning it outward into the world. With a bit of twisting and turning, Jeff Renfroe does good work making us wonder and also making us think. If you need a nice, quick thrill, this is certainly one movie you ought to check out.

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