Law Abiding Citizen Revisited
Someone's Gonna Pay

On a certain level. Law Abiding Citizen is hard to take seriously. The film tells the Samson-like tale of a man blinded by injustice and bent on bringing the entire courthouse down around him. Philistines! Gerard Butler plays Clyde Shelton, a genius inventor who witnesses the murder of his wife and daughter. Jamie Foxx plays the ambitious prosecutor who accepts a plea-bargain from the perpetrator after a judge rules that DNA evidence was illegally obtained. Shelton then spawns a 10-year plot to mete out justice upon both perpetrators and every part of the system that abetted their crimes.

What’s hard to take seriously is some of the clunky plotting. In his review of the theatrical release for PtP, Jeff noted that the mode of Shelton’s incarceration is more than just a slight stretch. Viewers of lesser credulity might also have problem with a solitary confinement cell block in which prisoners go unmonitored and unseen for hours at a time. Like me, you may also be wondering what the timeframe of the film is given that cell phone technology seems to change very little, if at all, over the course of the film’s 10 years.

Jamie Foxx as Nick in Law Abiding CitizenWhat’s easy to take seriously is Shelton’s chafing at what seems so clearly a miscarriage of justice. He wants to see a system in which “everybody is accountable for their actions”—including himself—while Foxx’s prosecutor Nick Rice is a realist who argues that “some justice is better than no justice at all.” A former prosecutor who comments in the DVD’s special features notes that, in most real-life cases, “a good deal was a deal that nobody liked.” So we kind of understand Shelton when he tells Rice that he’s going to bring the whole “diseased temple down on your head. It’s gonna be biblical.”

Well, yes, if you simply think of the scope of Shelton’s retribution, which goes well beyond the mere righting of wrongs. He doesn’t just become a freelance Judge Jury; he adds a dash of the Marquis de Sade for good measure.

But there’s no mistaking that the miscarriage of justice at the center of this tale is all too real, and that it strikes a chord with an awful lot of sympathetic moviegoers.

Does the film, however, really take the notion of justice very seriously? Not really. The script’s starting point, for instance, takes it for granted that justice is a right—but even a cursory glance through the international section of your favorite news-site pretty much shoots that notion down. Is justice a goal of enlightened, progressive societies? Yes. But that doesn’t make it a given.

Shelton’s rage of injustice (and our reaction to it) is also fueled by the sense that Darby, the primary perpetrator, isn’t getting what he deserves. On a purely secular level, I get that; but on a broader moral level, none of us get what we deserve. In fact, most of us expend a great deal of daily energy trying to find ways of circumventing our very own laws, and conceptually (read: begrudgingly) agreeing that we will “be accountable for our actions,” as Shelton wishes, only if we are caught red-handed. But when somebody does something really wrong (read: breaking those laws with which we agree), by God we want them to pay.

Is justice absolute, with a divine moral force behind it? If so, why doesn’t our own behavior tend to reflect that conviction?

Is justice rather the result of a social contract, with each society empowered to determine for itself what is right and what is wrong? If so, why do we so often transgress against our own social contract?

Any way you cut it, Clarence Darby is a mere exaggeration of our own self-centered law-breaking natures. And any way you cut it, Clyde Shelton is a mere exaggeration of our own white-washed hypocrisy.

Still, let’s leave aside, for the moment, the viciousness with which Shelton pursues his quest. Let’s just consider Clyde Shelton the man. What happens when a random act of violence takes his family? His purpose becomes all-consuming and corrupting. What might have happened instead, had he accepted that injustice is a part of the human condition and instead focused his energies in loving others? Might this inventor not, perhaps, have come up with a new means of purifying water in third-world villages? Which would be more worthwhile?

Alas! but Law Abiding Citizen merely piques our interest by brushing roughly up against these questions. If you want your ire burnished while munching your popcorn, this big budget tale might just be what you’re after. It’s entertaining enough.

For something a little more thought-provoking, however, maybe track down a copy of Steel City or find a theater where My Neighbor My Killer is playing. There’s really no enlightenment here.

Law Abiding Citizen is rated R for “strong bloody brutal violence and torture, a scene of rape, and pervasive language.” Yup. Kinda like a slasher pic / snuff film in street clothes.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional DVD of Law Abiding Citizen.