Brandon's Word: Law Abiding Citizen is an Explosive Thrill
by Brandon Lee Tenney
October 16, 2009
The grammar stickler in me has an immediate problem with Law Abiding Citizen. The words "law" and "abiding" are not supposed to be separate, but rather combined as a hyphenated adjective modifying the noun "citizen" like so: Law-Abiding Citizen. But when William Goss pointed out that, perhaps, the title's lack of a hyphen is intentional, my brain unfurled and drank in this radically tasty nectar. As Goss explained to me, it's not the citizen who is abiding the law, instead, it's the law that's abiding the citizen. And it's in this simple, innocuous distinction that the seed of my fondness for F. Gary Gray's film was planted. Now, I've no idea if the title's intention is as deep as I've dug, but what I do know is that the film certainly isn't. But it doesn't have to be. 'Cause it's a vibrant, satisfying expedition into a wish-fulfillment, vigilante fantasy.
Before I get into what Law Abiding Citizen isn't, let's discuss what it is. As stated above, it's predominantly a wish fulfillment fantasy. It's a thriller, sure, with a bit of social commentary sprinkled here and there in big globs that never blend, and some twists and turns and reversals, but it's really a depiction of those dark, strangely satisfying thoughts one might have after hearing on the news that a murderer or rapist was released from prison early for good behavior or on a legal technicality. Or maybe that's just me. Which brings me to the first impasse you may have to break through with this review.
You're either going to agree with--or at least identify with--the moral relativism presented in the film by Clyde Shelton (the character played by Gerard Butler) or you won't. If you're unable to enter the head-space of a man whose sense of justice is laying a man prostrate on a plank of wood, binding his head, arms, torso, and legs to said table, pumping him so full of adrenaline that he's incapable of passing out, cutting off his eyelids so he's incapable of clenching them shut, and making him watch in a full-length mirror hanging above the table as his limbs, digits, and other unmentionable extremities are slowly dissembled by a circular saw then, well, this movie isn't for you. But as fucked up as it may sound, whatever vigilante-esque psychosis that I've bubbling way below my surface, I am able to enter that head-space. Due to this alone, I quite liked what Law Abiding Citizen had to say, no matter how schlocky and bombastic it said it.
I should mention, albeit briefly, just what Law Abiding Citizen is about. In short, Clyde Shelton is the victim of a brutal home invasion that leads to the murders of his wife and young daughter. In a deal struck by an up-and-coming attorney, Nick Rice (played by Jamie Foxx), in order to preserve his stellar conviction percentage, the worst of the murderers is sentenced to a minimal stay in prison in exchange for the other murderer's whereabouts and eventual death penalty sentence. CUT TO: Ten Years Later. Clyde, an apparent inventor and genius, begins his plan of revenge to exact justice on his family's murderers, the members of the court involved in the plea bargain, and the justice system at large while attempting to teach Nick Rice exactly what justice really means.
Perhaps after that you can better understand just why it was easy for me to follow, understand, and intellectualize Clyde's reactions -- wanting to cause as much pain and suffering to the man that caused him so much, feeling like the justice system failed him, and wanting to change it for the absolute, if not the better. Or, again, maybe you can't. And if that's the case then this movie will indeed be horrifyingly grim and cynical. But, for me, Clyde's character is an interesting one to watch on screen, played surprisingly well by Butler. Sure, the film devolves into a city-wide Rube Goldberg contraption of vigilantism and most of its best moments are lifted from the likes of Seven, The Dark Knight, Saw, and Escape from Alcatraz. But there's something about its sheer ridiculousness and main-lined sentiments of pure Justice (with a capital J) that take the film beyond what any of those films did (and, quite frankly, beyond what any of those films wanted to do). The very deadly idea of vigilante justice, of which the likes of Batman will not subscribe. The personalization of the revenge kill that's beyond Saw or even "Dexter." Escaping from prison by planning to be put in prison. All of that provides a real dread and tension and puzzle-like quality to the film.
But I can recognize why some of you out there may not like this film, namely for all of the reasons I listed above in defense of it. The good guy, the family man, and, when it boils down to it, the protagonist is Nick. But, for me, Nick was never a character with which I could relate. So it was Clyde, who is an exemplary anti-hero, who I gravitated toward. Sure, his character suffered the blindness of rage and stiffness of an arranged plot on rails toward the end, but after ten years of planning this elaborate takedown of the justice system, it was apparent that he'd lost his mind. So maybe I'm sick and twisted and it's that that allowed me to enjoy Law Abiding Citizen, but I like to think that it's more so that there are real emotions behind each of the actions displayed on film, no matter how outrageous those actions are.
Warning: spoilers ahead! So, with all of this talk of just how ridiculous and over-the-top this film can get, who'd have thought that my most glaring critique is that the ending is a let down? The film builds so steadily, each action of vigilantism growing in scale and scope, that when, finally, Clyde's ready to take down City Hall itself by igniting a bomb beneath a major meeting housing every major state official, I really expected that bomb to go off -- to see his plan come all the way to fruition. And when it doesn't, instead of feeling relieved that the "good guys" have trumped Clyde's master plan, I was disappointed. The entire film, up until this point, revels in the destruction and Clyde's swift, brutal hand of justice. And then it transforms, as if to say, "Nah, we were just joking about that eye-for-an-eye justice stuff. The legal system isn't all that bad. So, yeah. The good guys! Hooray, good guys!" Well, fuck that. It made me yearn for someone with Alex Proyas-sized--or even original director Frank Darabont-sized--balls who would have blown up that building with everyone in it and *then* shown our antihero die tragically, with nothing more to fight for, finally able to be at peace with his long gone loved ones. That's how it should have ended -- with the literal and metaphorical destruction of the justice system, not the whimper of Nick's acknowledgment that maybe he wasn't all right, even though he'll never change.
So if you've a fondness for Batman, but are always, in the back of your mind, frustrated that his morals won't allow him to just remove the scum of Gotham for the streets permanently, then Law Abiding Citizen is for you. The characters are present just enough to pull you in and the emotion and thrills are what will set around you like wax hardening at the bottom of a candle. The film is a quick burn, it's a lot of fun, and it's as close to enacting your own justice on The Man and those who he lets fall through the cracks legally. And if you're fortunate enough to be of a sounder mind, without such flexible morals, harboring a distaste for moral relativism and equal justice served for crimes committed--no matter how deadly-- well, consider yourself fortunate. 'Cause you don't have to deal with this bloody darkness. But I commend Law Abiding Citizen for delving, however sensationally, into the darkness for me.