Law Abiding Citizen (2009; F. Gary Gray)
By Daniel Barnes
I graduated from college a little over a decade ago, but judging by a cursory Google News search, one of the most annoying and frustrating aspects of my campus experience continues to this day – the flood of confrontational and determinedly offensive far-right religious protestors on campus. Typically, this would take the form of a single man, sometimes accompanied by meek family members, setting up in a high-traffic area of the campus quad and screaming hellfire insults at the students until a crowd gathered. The invective was too disgusting and too explicitly targeted to forgive, yet the speaker was too evangelical in their beliefs to logically argue with, and their apparent mental illness made outrage an inappropriate response. I only bring this up because no matter what it says on IMDB, I’m 85 to 90 percent certain that one of those protesters from my college days wrote, produced and directed the shameless 2009 pile of garbage Law Abiding Citizen.
Ostensibly directed by F. Gary Gray and written by Kurt Wimmer, Law Abiding Citizen takes on the American justice system with all the sound logic and sensitivity of a disgustingly inhumane, LMAO-strewn comments page rant. It creates a universe where “fuck his civil rights” is a statement of moral evolution, where the real injustice is that American citizens can’t get convicted without representation purely on hearsay in secret trials. In the anti-justice morass of Law Abiding Citizen, civil rights are the things that prevent you from getting home in time for your daughter’s cello recital.
If that vengeance-is-blind premise was the slingshot into pure, pig-rolling-in-its-own-slop exploitation, then this might have been a sickly enjoyable travesty. But what’s even more offensive than the glorification of torture and genital mutilation as soul-nourishing therapy throughout Law Abiding Citizen is that this solemnly slate-green screed thinks it has something important to say. At one point, a character literally fiddles with the scales of justice – it’s as subtle as a giant placard pasted up with graphic pictures of aborted fetuses and quotations of scripture, but still about as complicated as we get here.
When the film opens, family man Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) is the victim of a vicious home invasion. Two men break into Clyde’s house, and one of them goes over the line with sadistic relish. Clyde gets stabbed repeatedly in the chest, barely surviving his wounds, while his wife and young daughter are raped and killed in front of him. This sadism is the film’s idea of a “grabber.” Fast forward a few days or so to the trial of the century, and hotshot young prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx, making me long for a couple of bars of “Georgia on My Mind”) is preparing to cut a plea deal, partially to save his perfect win-loss record in court. Nick explains to Clyde that the DNA evidence against the assailants is inconclusive, and with flimsy physical evidence, there is a strong possibility that a trial will result in an acquittal. “It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove in court,” says Nick, a perfectly logical sentiment that the film predictably finds outrageous.
As it turns out, Nick cut a deal with the wrong man, letting the slimeball who instigated the rape and murder off with a 5-year sentence while his less culpable accomplice gets the death penalty. In the outrage coup de grace, the slimy, deal-cutting rapist is allowed to accost Nick on the courthouse steps as he gets escorted back to prison, and they shake hands while a crestfallen Clyde watches from across the street. Fast forward another decade, and Nick has been promoted to District Attorney of Philadelphia, while Clyde, burning with righteous fury, used the time to become an expert on everything in the world. The absurdities surrounding Clyde’s back story are abundant – all at once, he’s a superspy, an inventor, a government assassin with a “gift” for killing, a scientific genius, a clairvoyant, a legal expert, and, you know, just a regular guy pushed too far.
Nick attends the lethal injection ceremony for the man sentenced to death, but what is supposed to be a painless procedure instead results in prolonged and gruesome suffering. Given the recent events surrounding botched lethal injections, this seemed like a surprisingly prescient look at the fallibility of the death penalty. But no – even though Clyde knew that the man got railroaded into an unfair sentence, we find out that he intentionally poisoned the injection in order make his death an infinitely more painful experience (the death penalty is probably the only aspect of the American justice system that Law Abiding Citizen unquestioningly supports). This is the first clue we get that Clyde is enacting a revenge plot against the people (and the system, dammit) who wronged him, and also one of the first enactments of the film’s insane ideas about justice. Law Abiding Citizen can’t imagine anything more unjust than the concept of “lesser” crimes incurring “lesser” sentences, but here’s one: if they didn’t, and misdemeanors got punished by torture and death.
The film re-imagines Les Miserables with Inspector Javert as the wronged victim of an unjust system. In one of many sequences that hold a knife to the throat of decency and credibility, Clyde poses as a cop to capture the paroled rapist and takes him back to a homemade torture chamber. As any grieving father would, Clyde systematically tortures, castrates, decapitates, eviscerates and otherwise defiles the man. Then Clyde rigs a mirror, so his victim is forced to see the entire thing, and even attaches a photo of his wife and child so that they can “watch.” Of course, Clyde films the whole act, and personally delivers the tape to Nick’s preteen daughter, who pops it right into the player. It is right here that I should point out that Clyde represents the film’s idea of an uncompromising moral center.
All of this murder and mischief is linked back to Clyde, who is arrested at his home while Nick watches, a dynamic that the film finds deliciously ironic (it isn’t – Nick prosecutes mass murderers for a living). Clyde gets sent to prison, but his plan only deepens in intrigue and scope from his cell – with his encyclopedic knowledge of legal loopholes, Clyde can manipulate his way through the legal and penal systems, eventually landing into solitary confinement. Even after Clyde is taken into custody, revenge murders keep occurring, leading Nick to believe there may be an accomplice on the outside. Eventually, this happens:
Don’t worry about her, because as Clyde is fond of reminding us, that woman was a total “bitch in heat.” The film is as outraged by the preponderance of “bitches” in the American justice system as it is by sentencing guidelines or due process. While Clyde stews in solitary confinement, more people are wantonly slaughtered on the outside, including a suffocated defense attorney and a series of car bomb explosions that target Nick’s co-workers. In perhaps the goofiest twist of the last decade, we finally learn that Clyde owns a warehouse just outside the prison walls and that he had already dug a tunnel leading to his cell in solitary confinement before his arrest. All of those murders – it was Clyde sneaking out of his cell the entire time! While no one noticed! Which is just fucking stupid. Even worse, for a movie that goes this crazy-bananas, Law Abiding Citizen is a surprisingly dull watch, bloated and patchy all at once, with only morbid curiosity and reactionary disgust carrying the viewer from sadistic setpiece to sadistic setpiece.
Naturally, Gray and Wimmer believe their perverted morality is instructive. Clyde is defined by his rage against the system, so while his methods get portrayed as uncompromising and occasionally over-the-top, the film wants us to understand the righteousness of his cause. He is teaching us a lesson about justice (and, unwittingly, in the misuse of irony), toppling an unfair system, and attempting to create a new form of justice that can’t be gamed and manipulated by the so-called Constitution. To do this, he has to kill and maim a lot of people, simultaneously putting a major metropolitan city in a heightened state of terror, but it’s OK – after all, he’s a grieving husband and father.
But wait a minute. By inflicting a wave of mass murder on the Philadelphia justice system, Clyde also created a new generation of grieving family members. Clyde may view the dozens of anonymous lawyers that he incinerated in a series of car bomb explosions as guilt-by-association proprietors of an unjust legal system who deserved to die, but it’s unlikely that their spouses, parents, siblings, and children would have felt the same way. That’s a significant potential dent in the supposed righteousness of Clyde’s elaborate revenge scheme, but Gray “solves” this riddle by never showing or mentioning the families of his victims, putting the focus on Nick’s troubled family instead.
When Nick kills Clyde at the end, detonating C4 explosives in his prison cell, it is meant to signify an end to deal-cutting and manipulating of justice, but also an end to the pattern of slaughter. If we take the film at its word, though, then what Nick did was rob the grieving families of Clyde’s victims of their inalienable right to torture and emasculate Clyde with a box cutter, while pumping him full of adrenaline and administering a saline IV so that he doesn’t pass out. It’s what the founding fathers would have wanted if they lived today, were all schizophrenic, and somehow mistook the Saw films for legal texts.
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