Waiting for “Civic Duty” to start, I browsed its synopsis: an everyday guy, recently unemployed, spends all day taking in alarmist TV news and, saturated with images of swarthy bad guys, decides to undertake a paranoiac surveillance operation on his new Middle Eastern neighbor. As the lights went down I got to thinking: What is the most predictable possible way that a movie with such a plot could open? With some kind of collage of TV news sound bites, I decided… and that’s just what came onscreen. It’s an essential detail: at no point does the thoroughly obligatory “Civic Duty” do any more or less than what’s expected of it.
Terry, the everyday guy, is played serviceably by Peter Krause (from “Six Feet Under“), but the film knits him into a tapestry of cliches: some unconvincing domestic levity with his wife (Kari Matchett), “it’s not a white man’s world anymore” bluster that plays like deleted scenes from “Falling Down,” and a final face-off between he and his prey (Khaled Abol Naga) that’s an unnecessary reshuffle of Said Taghmaoui and Mark Wahlberg‘s interrogation scene in “Three Kings.”
You may excuse some of the familiarity in the snooping scenes by reasoning that media-inundated Terry, when he decides to remold himself as a man of action, only has shopworn cloak-and-dagger tropes as points of reference: when he’s exploring the neighbor’s apartment and his suspect comes home, Terry darts for the closet because it’s convenient, yes, but also because that’s what people do in the movies. But where a note of wit or an acquaintance with farce could shock the material to life, director Jeff Renfroe‘s only instinct is to stymie every scene under undynamic shades of gray severity. With a score full of sparse, fragile piano plonks to telegraph “melancholy,” Renfroe utilizes close-up cut-ins, layered fades, buzzy camerawork, and bleary focus to communicate the experience of a disintegrating mind in the first person singular. Lodge Kerrigan tried something similar in his “Clean, Shaven“; that aesthetic feint was effective, but only because every scene had the marks of Kerrigan’s empathy, intelligence, rigorous attention. Kerrigan’s filmmaking was homemade, whereas Renfroe’s aesthetic is bought off-the-rack, and at deep discount. I can’t see anything to indicate that there was any organizational principle at work in “Civic Duty” that goes deeper than: “Okay, in this scene he’s really losing it, right, so shake the camera around a lot! More than it shakes in other parts, alright?”
Lazily conceived, opportunistically “topical” (Tagline: “The War on Terror Just Came Home” – you should all be ashamed), coddlingly liberal (and yet unusually trustworthy of government agencies), “Civic Duty” only gets more painful if you imagine such sub-straight-to-video fare was intended as a metaphor for the complexities of U.S. foreign policy. Which it probably was.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.]