Landslide Pictures, 2006
written by Andrew Joiner
directed by Jeff Renfroe
98 minutes, rated R

This film didn't win distribution when first made, but then got shown in the Tribeca film festival and won over an audience, and was picked up for theatrical release.  It is nominally a thriller.  But it lets you know early and often that this is going to be a film that has something to say about The Issues Of Today.  Now I have a fairly high tolerance for films that say stuff about The Issues Of Today... I grew up in the sixties and seventies, the golden age of the message film, and I like 'em just fine.  Or at least, I used to.  This one I soon found tiresome to sit through, though there's not really anything overtly wrong with it.

I think my main problem is just that it's clear early that the protagonist is a dick.  And when you make a film where the character acting out your morality fable is a dick, you end up with a moral lesson at the end that amounts to little more than "Don't be a dick."  Not exactly an optimum way to get anyone to take a fresh look at themselves and have a change of heart.

The basic plot setup is: accountant Terry Allen (played by Peter Krause) has just lost a job, so he's home all day doing job searches.  He's surrounded by media voices constantly harping on the subject of terrorist threats, orange alerts, and the like, the way things were in 2002 or 2003.  He notices a new neighbor, an Arab graduate student named Gabe Hassan (Khaled Abol Naga)... who seems to behave a bit suspiciously.  The more vaguely suspicious clues he sees, the harder he looks, to the point of obsessiveness.  His behavior starts to drive a wedge into his marriage.  It sometimes looks like he's making a big deal out of nothing, and at other times like maybe there is something illegal going on that the authorities need to be told about.  He tries to talk to the authorities but is frustrated.  Finally, as tension mounts to a breaking point between Allen, Hassan, Mrs. Allen, and the authorities, Shit Happens...

It's hard to root for anyone when a film stacks the deck against its own protagonist, but then holds out the possibility that his antagonist is a terrorist.

Given this scenario, there is a limited set of ways that the story can go forward, and with each one of them you pretty much know how the film has to play out -- you just don't know which one they've chosen:

1A) The guy really is a terrorist, and our protagonist heroically succeeds in getting the goods on him. Result: we feel jerked around because the movie raised The Issues and then retreated into conventional thriller territory.
1B) The guy appears to really be a terrorist, but a twist at the end reveals that our protagonist misunderstood everything, and he's not. Result: we get a familiar, old fashioned "surprise" ending and maybe also feel like we've been bluntly lectured about paranoia and profiling.
2A) The guy is clearly innocent and Terry Allen is the real danger to society. Result: now we really feel lectured to... they'd better do a damn good job of making an intentionally unsympathetic character interesting to hang out with.
2B) The guy appears very innocent and Terry Allen seems like the real danger to society, but a surprise twist has Hassan turn out to be guilty. Result: we sneer at the film for hypocritically trying to both possess and consume its cake, or at least get annoyed that the apparent social message and the thriller plot end up undermining each other.
3) The evidence carefully balances out the likelihood that Hassan is innocent or guilty, keeping us guessing until the end, when the answer is revealed, probably by falsely seeming to settle it one way and then finally settling it the other way. Result: we enjoy the movie as a thriller, but only while recognizing it as a completely artificial Hollywood entertainment that has nothing to do with saying something meaningful about The Issues, so we feel annoyed that The Issues were brought up at all.

The thing is, none of these options really works out well -- you're going to end up with either something heavy-handed or something self-defeating.  Unless, of course, they manage to pull off some kind of brilliant bravura filmmaking magic that makes it succeed in ways you never expected.  Sadly, nothing of this sort happens; they do not escape the trap.  Once you start by presenting The Issues and then make a story, you get trapped in these choices, whereas if you had started with the story and then had the issues grow out of it, you can make your message hit home.  But given the premise, this was pretty much the only way they could do it.

That said, though, they do almost pull it off... they reveal some information we didn't know about our protagonist which puts the actions we've seen in a different light, and then there's some extra maneuvering after that... they almost manage to pull it off.  But in the end they still face the end result of a heavy-handed or self-defeating fable... they make their choice, and I will not reveal which of the two it is.  I will say that, of the two, I feel they probably picked the better one.

As a thriller, it has danger and action in the second half, but it's nothing that stands out.  Thrillers with far more danger and action are mass produced all the time.  The film is not going to make a mark by just being action entertainment.

Acting: the cast is generally very sound.  Unfortunately Peter Krause (who also has a producer credit) is a little bit weaker than some of the other players around him.  Not badly so... just enough to be noticeable.  Unfortunately, he's in every single scene.

The direction and cinematography are fashionably artsy, with lots of tight closeups, shallow depth-of-field, handheld unsteadiness, some digital jitter effects as we get into the Shit Happening... but dude, WTF is up with all the green light?  Why do so many movies these days like to have the characters' hair and skin turning green?

So, up to this point I've been pretty negative.  But despite all I've said, one thing I will not say is that this is a bad film.  I suspect that many of the reasons that I found it less than thrilling are personal to me, and that many -- perhaps even most -- other viewers will have no problem with the film.  It is, after all, a pretty tight portrayal of a fragile personality facing crisis, and a fresh way of looking at the question of what one does, or ought to do, to be vigilant against a real threat to one's homeland.  It does stand as rather unique; other thrillers and political films are not dealing with this material.  It's a fairly bold film and definitely not just another product.  It has a lot going for it.  But in the end, unfortunately, I can't give my recommendation to a film that I personally found little enjoyment or satisfaction in.