Law Abiding Citizen: Five Movie Laws This Film Fails to Abide By
Law Abiding Citizen, the new film by F. Gary Gray, is a far-fetched fantasy disguised as a gritty serial killer thriller. There are also hints of social commentary that get interesting for half a second before diving into the realm of the ludicrous. Gray mixes and matches genres and ideas so liberally that the whole thing turns out to be a somewhat garbled mess. The idea of a man who got screwed over by the justice system deciding to try to take it down, and the man who cut a deal with a known rapist/murderer and then having to pay for his actions, are the material of a ripe Greek tragedy. Instead, Hollywood gets in the way, and the tones clash due to several key missteps.
Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) is an engineer whose house is invaded, and his wife and daughter are raped and murdered right before his eyes. Gray knows that the audience has zero chance of thinking of Clyde as anything but a brutal serial killer after the first half hour of the film, but wants us to sympathize with his plight until then, so he makes the unfortunate decision of showing us the viciousness of the home invasion. We see the knife enter the wife, we see her pants pulled down, we see the daughter walk in on the killer having mounted her mom, and we see the killer walk towards the girl, saying, “Little girls like me,” fully eliminating any trace of character dimension and replacing him with a murderous cartoon. Not surprisingly, later in the film, Clyde systematically tortures and kills the killers. It’s bloody and awful, but we still have traces of sympathy.
Then, the film starts to go from unpleasant to just plain bad. Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) is the assistant district attorney who is more concerned with keeping a high conviction rate than serving justice, so he cuts a deal with the rapist, getting death penalty for the other home invader while the rapist goes free in eight to ten years. When Clyde starts exacting his revenge, however, it’s not just on the killers– it’s on anyone in the justice system involved with the events. He feels the system is broken, and he’s going to bring it all down. What follows are five ways in which the film messes up.
1. It doesn’t matter how badly the main character suffered– in a thoughtful film, brutal torture and slaughter of essentially innocent men and women will not be condonable. Ever. In The Transporter or some other Jason Statham film, this would be acceptable and in good fun, and starring Jason Statham, Law Abiding Citizen might have been a more successful (albeit different) movie. However, Gray tried to get us to sympathize with Clyde, and the way Gerard Butler is playing the part, it’s more like Hannibal Lecter than mournful parent/husband. It’s revealed that he used to be the brains for a spy organization, but that’s still not justification for what he does. The slimy people involved, who are self-centered and obnoxious? Of course, they need to die. But sweet, sympathetic supporting characters? And sending a video of vicious dismemberment to Rice’s 9-year-old daughter?
2. Be thoughtful or don’t– but if you don’t pick a side, it doesn’t work. There are moments of discussion about the flaws in the justice system, and how it can be easily manipulated so that murderers go free. The most interesting moment in the film is when Clyde acts as his own attorney and reveals that despite the very evident fact that he committed the murders, there’s no evidence that will stand up in a court of law. The judge agrees, and agrees to give him bail. Moments like this reveal the direction in which the film could have gone. Instead, it prefers to have outrageous twists and death scenes. One of the deaths is ludicrous, inventive, and shocking, and would fit perfectly into some B-film (my audience laughed out loud in delight). However, following the discussions of the justice system, it shifts the film from being thoughtful to thoughtless. It’s like a tug-of-war between those desirous of an intelligent film, and those desirous of turning their brain off before stepping into the theater. You can balance both, but this film doesn’t attempt to balance– it merely mashes one into the other.
3. If you set up a seemingly impossible scenario, and you don’t have an intelligent ending, your audience will rebel. I can forgive the tonal shifts. There is some good cinematography and a few cool deaths (though you can tell intelligence goes out the window in dealing with this film when the best compliment I can give it is some “cool deaths”). However, the ending has me scratching my head still, twelve hours later. Not only is the twist regarding how Clyde manages to kill all these people from the confines of his jail cell an enormously stupid cop out, the character who receives his just desserts (I won’t say if it’s Nick or Clyde) receives them in a way that is implausible at best and laughable at worst. I would be happy to hear an explanation in the comments section below, with spoilers and all. I simply don’t know how the ending was pulled off.
4. If your supporting actors are more interesting than your main ones, you have a serious problem. Bruce McGill and Leslie Bibb both do nice work battling with their moral dilemma, whether they did the right thing and if they earned the death that’s coming for them. Jamie Foxx is the stubborn one, who only contemplates his responsibility for what happened maybe once, before continuing to do the necessary police work to save the day (even though he’s a lawyer, not a cop… the line is blurry in Gray’s world between lawyers and cops). Finally, Gray should have seen the work Viola Davis was doing as the mayor of Philadelphia, noted how she was exerting more force and power on the screen than any other character by a long shot, and written more scenes for her. She outclasses Butler and Foxx by a country mile in this film.
5. Don’t let Hollywood dictate the path of your film. Somewhere, I have the feeling there was an interesting movie– in fact, I read that Jamie Foxx was originally set to play Clyde with Gerard Butler as Nick. This intrigues me… Foxx would have likely been a more pensive, less psychotic killer, and Butler would have been more emotional as the assistant D.A. (at least, I’m basing this on their strengths as performers). This might have lent itself to a more intriguing thriller, laced with moral dilemmas and not merely packed with killing for the sake of blood. But that’s not what’s “in” in Hollywood right now, is it? Why have thoughtful thrillers when people’s phones can blow their brains out and twist endings can ruin any semblance of logic? In the end, while Gray and company might have abided by the laws of the brainless Hollywood thriller, he is guilty of a first-degree waste of talent.