A movie to leave at least six feet under
Dig deep down into some bad movies and you occasionally find a good idea at the center.
"Civic Duty" isn't one of those movies.
Still, dig deep enough into this particular bad movie, past its bad central idea, and there's a good impulse here: to call attention to post-9/11 anti-Muslim paranoia. You can even see how a lugubrious psychological thriller like this might actually pull it off, if it hadn't been overdirected into the ground.
Throwing a change-up after years of "Six Feet Under ," star and co-producer Peter Krause bears some of the blame, but writer Andrew Joiner and director Jeff Renfroe bear more. Krause plays Terry Allen , an accountant laid off in the opening scenes and stuck at home, rattling around his claustrophobic New York apartment (I know; that's redundant).
His sensible wife (Kari Matchett ) assumes he's spending his days circling help- wanted ads. Actually, Terry's listening to too much TV news, obsessively checking the Department of Homeland Security's threat levels, and freaking out about the Arab man (Khaled Abol Naga ) who just moved in downstairs.
You can see where the filmmakers are going: Roman Polanski -style creeping horror fused with today's Code Orange anxiety. In a world where you can't trust the president or the media, how are you supposed to trust the foreigner below, especially when he invites his glowering friends over after midnight? Especially when he's checking out your wife?
Is the neighbor, Gabe Hassan , a graduate student or a terrorist? (Yes, the movie's that reductive.) "Civic Duty" does its best to keep us off-balance throughout, in the "Twilight Zone " manner. Terry is sure something's afoot, but his increasingly high-pitched warning cries go unheard by his wife and by the exasperated FBI agent (Richard Schiff ) he pesters with phone calls. Eventually something has to crack. Unfortunately, it's either Terry or us.
Faced with a limited location and concept, Renfroe points his camera everywhere: The movie's seriously overshot, never settling for one angle when five would do. Chintzy synthesized suspense music adds to the straight-to-video feel. To be fair, the script doesn't offer much to work with. The main character starts out in middle gear and progresses to high in a straight line, with no variations in tempo. Worse, Krause is just plain miscast. Terry's yuppie-nerd haircut can't hide the balefully intelligent eyes of the man playing him.
At the very end, "Civic Duty" tosses out a final twist meant to rearrange the whole movie in our heads. It doesn't. It's just one last bad idea.