A Civilized World opens with an innocuous enough shot: A place holder on a dinner table inscribed with the name Felix Jones, a platter of finger food is laid next to it before the scene expands to an obviously swanky bar or maybe party. Guests are laughing, gulping wine, greedily devouring appetizers. Who is Felix Jones? We’re never formally introduced, but by the end of the film we may well have a good idea of his fate.
Set in an alternative, yet familiar, reality, the main meat of Anghus Houvouras’ short (43 minutes) film is primarily a double hander: In a sparsely furnished room, a government employee (Justin Smith) questions a condemned woman, Eleanor Reed (Karen Labbé) about her life choices, tells how her selfishness has affected others whilst she tries to defend herself, sometimes though pity, sometimes by questioning him about his acceptance of how the world works. Through this head-to-head we will come to understand much of the world this story is taking place in and, chillingly, the fate that befalls those who don’t – for whatever reason – conform. The interrogation becomes a philosophical debate, the upper hand in the argument constantly swinging back and forth between the two protagonists like the pendulum of a clock whose minutes are running down or, more ominously, a Sword of Damocles. Both Smith and Labbé deliver excellent and believable performances, playing their characters straight and never descending into melodrama, both are pitch perfect for the material.
The film ends much as it begins, but now the sight of a placeholder on a dinner table holds a far more horrifying connotation.
A Civilized World dares to ask big questions that hold as much relevance to our own world as much as they do in the world in which it is set, it doesn’t so much promote debate as provoke it, it demands you talk about it, question it, argue it. It seems not so much concerned with how civilization is defined as it is with whom does the defining. It is unsettling, disquieting and yet, other than its unnerving and deeply ominous score (by Melina Radovic), there is little onscreen visually that you would conventionally rate as disturbing or upsetting. Writer/director Anghus Houvouras keeps the audience off-balance throughout, never knowing where the subtle conflict will take us and delivers a subtle gut-punch that is troubling long after viewing.
A Civilized World is due to premiere at the Tribeca Film Center on September 24th, this year and is well worth three-quarters of an hour of anybody’s time.