Law Abiding Citizen (review)

Vengeance Is Ours, At Any Price

It had me at kaboom, this thorny moral conundrum of a film, and kept me for a long time. Kept me wondering who was the good guy and who was the villain until I started to dare to believe that maybe this would be the rare studio film that doesn’t feel the need to break things down so prettily. Kept me marveling at how the gray areas were staying gray and the complicated, no-easy-answers stuff kept getting more complicated. And then it lost me, nay, threw me overboard when it threw out all the tricksy pointedness and threw its lot in with those who are willing to throw out the baby of the American legal system with the bathwater of its problems.
It’s all about the brokenness of our criminal justice system, this Law Abiding Citizen flick, which anyone can see is broken to the point at which you want to despair that it will never, can never be fixed. It opens with that kaboom of a bang, a home invasion in which a mother and her daughter are brutally murdered — the “scene of rape” the rating mentions occurs here, though it was nothing more than a suggestion; I think director F. Gary Gray (Be Cool, The Italian Job) must have done some last minute editing — and the husband and father is the only survivor. Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler: Gamer, The Ugly Truth) gets another punch in the gut when the district attorney, Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx: The Soloist, The Kingdom) tells him that he’s made a deal that will put one of the killers on death row but will free the other one — the far more vicious one — in a mere few years.

It’s a not unfamiliar scenario to anyone who reads the papers or, indeed, has seen even a single episode of Law and Order. But this is only the beginning. Instead of Sam Waterston fretting over the compromises that have to be made in order to put bad guys behind bars, we have Gerard Butler being badass: he’s not going to take this injustice sitting down. So, ten years later — as the condemned murderer is finally up for execution — he reappears to begin wreaking havoc on everyone he deems worthy of furthering injustice, from the murderers themselves to those in the DA’s office.

One bizarre visual confluence Gray throws at us early in the film struck me, and though I was willing to put it down at the time as a momentary aberration, by the end of the film, when the film finally decided that it didn’t like shades of gray after all, it was clear that that moment was making a deliberate statement after all. Gray cuts quickly from the execution to the cello recital of Rice’s ten-year-old daughter, and it was only later that I realized he was saying: “This [the execution] is what we have to do to keep this [our children] safe.” That’s not something I agree with, but mere disagreement is not why I ultimately found Citizen so distasteful. It’s because the film — the script is by Kurt Wimmer (Street Kings, Ultraviolet) — is so emblematic of the unpleasant streak that runs through the American zeitgeist today, the one that took root after 9/11 and appears to be settling into stay: that we have to do away with what makes America America — like the rule of law and that pesky Constitution — in order to “save” America.

It’s easy to feel Shelton’s rage at a system that cannot guarantee maximum punishment for those who do wrong… and part of that is down to Butler, who manages to compel our sympathy even after Shelton has clearly gone down the road of the psychopath. It’s easy to feel Rice’s frustration at a system that sometimes has to let the guilty go free because it is designed foremost to protect the innocent… and part of that is down to Foxx, whose power as a screen presence more than transcends how underwritten his role is. And it’s easy to forgive the movie-standard preposterousness the plot must go through in order for Shelton to carry out his plan to make those pay who make others suffer, and to teach a lesson to those who would set wrongdoers free, however unwillingly.

What isn’t forgivable, however, is Citizen’s apparent unwillingness to either go the full distance or to see the upshot of what it advocates. Near the end of the film, Shelton informs Rice that his campaign of terror against the city — ironically, Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love and the home of the American Revolution — is “gonna bring it all down,” this corrupt system, and that “it’s gonna be biblical.” I had already given up, at this point, but suddenly I had new hope. Where are the movies that have any ideas about how to really fix things? Doesn’t anyone have even a radical notion of what it would take? For a moment, I hoped that we were in for a Fight Club-esque finale, something that could be a real gamechanger. Instead, however, we have Rice, who has been a stickler for the rules — and with good reason — all along, saying, “Fuck his [Shelton’s] civil rights.”

Part of me would like to take Rice’s sudden sympathy with Shelton — a psychopathic terrorist — as something of a warning against letting oneself get manipulated into doing things totally contrary to one’s beliefs. (You know, kinda how Osama Bin Laden could claim a victory when the U.S. reduced its own freedoms after 9/11.) But that’d be a stretch, because that “Fuck his civil rights” line is meant to get a big ol’ cheer out of the audience: it is Rice’s moment of triumph, and the movie’s, the moment in which “good” supposedly will finally give “evil” the smackdown it’s asking for.

But if Law Abiding Citizen wants to be a story about an ordinary man — Shelton — who takes back a power he believes has been given up to those in charge — Rice — a power those in charge have abused, why is it ultimately espousing a route that would do nothing but give those in authority even more power over ordinary people? If Shelton’s civil rights are fucked, then so are yours and mine.

It makes no damn sense whatsoever, and I doubt those cheering it on have any idea what, exactly, they’re cheering on.

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