Movie Review: Law Abiding Citizen

October 12, 2009

The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.
-Henry VI, Part Two (act 4, scene 2)

If there is one thriller premise that’s been played out in recent years, it would be that of the diabolical mastermind: a villain of seemingly limitless ingenuity (not to mention financial resources), who manipulates others like chess pieces as he kills them one by one through fiendishly clever ploys.

In “Law Abiding Citizen,” director F. Gary Gray goes over this all-too-familiar ground, but if the “Saw” franchise and Hannibal Lecter’s various screen excursions didn’t slake your appetite for mayhem, this film may be worth your while.

“Citizen” stars Gerard Butler as Clyde Shelton, an inventor whose wife and daughter are killed in the film’s opening scene during a brutal home invasion. When he discovers that one of the two criminals who killed his wife and daughter would get a reduced sentence in exchange for turning state’s evidence, he proceeds to wreak his revenge — first against the perpetrators, then against the entire justice system, because, you know, why the hell not?

Opposite Butler is Jamie Foxx as Nick Rice, the ambitious assistant district attorney who negotiated the plea bargain and now finds himself the target of Shelton’s campaign of terror as his friends and colleagues are murdered — even after Shelton himself has been locked in jail.

The film does have the advantage of being slightly more plausible than the “Saw” series’ grotesqueries, as Rice (and the audience) soon discover that Shelton has had plenty of experience, and earned a sizable salary, building lethal booby traps for the CIA. (Also noteworthy is the fact that all of the means Shelton employs to dispatch his targets have actually been used, or at least tested, by the USA and its allies in the War on Terror.)

Unfortunately, grounding the “diabolical mastermind” premise firmly in reality only serves to underscore its inherent double-dealing. In films like this one, the villain is generally the real hero, characterized with greater depth than his disposable foils. The audience admires his pride and cunning while (hopefully) deploring his motive.

This works well enough in straight-ahead horror flicks like “Silence of the Lambs,” where the villains’ motives are outlandish enough to be automatically repellent. But in striving for a degree of social relevance, “Law Abiding Citizen” comes dangerously close to approving what it should condemn.

The scene that best exemplifies this is at Shelton’s arraignment, in which he recites legal chapter and verse to request bail — and when the judge moves to grant it, Shelton berates her for being willing to grant such a concession to a dangerous man. Indeed, the source of his murderous outrage seems to be that the American legal system is not designed to move with the speed and efficiency of a black-ops assassination squad, nor offer similar guarantees for its outcome.

In our post-9/11 era, such arguments about the supposed need to sidestep traditional legal protections in the name of safety have become a persistent — and dangerous — element of our national discourse, and popular entertainment that stacks the deck in favor of such outlandish ends-justify-the-means scenarios aid and abet such doublespeak.

In another film, “A Man for All Seasons,” the Catholic St. Thomas More delivers his answer to those who would circumvent the legal process in favor of what they believe to be right:

“What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? … And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you — where would you hide, the laws all being flat? … Yes, I give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

This reviewer hopes that viewers take away a similar message from “Law Abiding Citizen.” Instead, he expects that — just as the TV show “24” was cited to justify waterboarding terror suspects later found to be innocent — this film will serve to provide an equally flimsy and implausible argument against transferring detainees from Guantanamo to federal prisons on the mainland, courtesy of commentators who have, once again, completely missed the point.

“Law Abiding Citizen” is rated R for “strong bloody brutal violence and torture, a scene of rape, and pervasive language,” which are also all that serve to distinguish it from a two-part episode of “Law and Order.” It runs 108 minutes and will open nationwide on Friday, Oct. 16.

(Published in a slightly modified form here, Oct. 14, 2009)

UPDATE: If somebody really wanted to make an “edgy,” socially relevant thriller about a lone man seeking revenge against a corrupt justice system, THIS would make a much better motive…

UPDATE 2: On a related note (via The Awl):

“But the REAL question is: Why the hell are these chunks of cinematic shite so popular? The answer is simple: American guilt. We’re all thrashing around in a culture built on Me-ism—I want mine, I’ll do whatever it takes to get it, and fuck everybody else.”

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