Law Abiding Citizen (United States, 2009)

October 16, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Law Abiding Citizen Poster

The premise of Law Abiding Citizen - angry father seeks revenge on the system when his daughter's murderer gets off with a light sentence - probably sounded great in the pitch meetings but, as with all high concept motion pictures, the devil's in the details. For a while, F. Gary Gray's thriller works on a purely visceral level, offering a degree of guilty satisfaction to viewers as one sleazy individual after another gets eliminated in a gruesome, Saw-esque manner. Unfortunately, Law Abiding Citizen isn't content to be a Death Wish for 2009. It wants to be bigger and bolder. So it takes a simple revenge fantasy and uses it as the core of an elaborate high-stakes game that, in shooting for "inventive," ends up hitting "preposterous." The more Kurt Wimmer's screenplay reveals about the lead character's scheme, the more difficult it is to believe that Law Abiding Citizen is intended to be taken seriously.

The movie opens with a sequence as grim and upsetting as one is likely to find in a mainstream movie: engineer Clyde Shelton (Gerard Butler) is enjoying a quiet evening at home with his wife and daughter when the pleasant domestic scene is interrupted by the sound of someone knocking. Thinking it's a takeout delivery, Clyde carelessly opens the door and is whacked in the head with a bat. The next thing he knows, he's barely conscious, gagged, and bound, and is forced to watch as his wife is raped and killed. Then his young daughter is taken into another room for a similar treatment. Several months later, the criminals are awaiting trial and the assistant D.A. assigned to the case, Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), decides to do the expedient thing to preserve his 96% conviction rate: allow one of the two suspects - the one who committed the most heinous deeds - to provide evidence against the other and plead guilty to a reduced count of third degree murder. This does not sit well with Clyde, who views it as a betrayal by the justice system. He's a patient man, however, and spends the better part of the next ten years concocting a convoluted plot by which he can execute a wrath of "Biblical" proportions upon all those involved, including the perpetrators, the judge, the D.A., and Nick. His goal isn't mere vengeance; he wants to bring down a system that he believes to be broken beyond repair.

One questionable decision made by the filmmakers is to represent Clyde, who is essentially a domestic terrorist, sympathetically, and to have Nick come across negatively. Gray's intention was probably to show some good and evil in both characters, but by the way in which the movie is constructed, most audience members will be on Clyde's side, even when his killings slip from the level of being "righteous" to something questionable. Nick, on the other hand, is established almost as a villain, not only because he stands in Clyde's way but because he is part of the "problem" that places Clyde on the vigilante's path. When the film's third act attempts to follow the traditional formula of the lawman pursuing the criminal, we find ourselves hoping the "bad guy" gets away, and it's not at all clear that this is what Gray wants us to feel.

The biggest problem with Law Abiding Citizen, however, is that the plot is just plain dumb. It makes little enough sense during the course of the proceedings, and none whatsoever when studied in hindsight. It's also more than a little disappointing that someone as brilliant as Clyde makes some supremely stupid moves. There's nothing more frustrating than being told how smart a character is, then not consistently seeing it in his actions. There are some stinging verbal exchanges between Clyde and Nick, but they pale in comparison with their likely inspiration, the Hannibal/Clarice interaction in The Silence of the Lambs. There's also the question of why an assistant D.A. is participating in police chases, but I guess the filmmakers wanted Jamie Foxx to have more to do than stand around looking dapper in his suit.

Had Law Abiding Citizen stuck to the tried-and-true Death Wish trajectory, it likely would have been an uninspired but entertaining diversion. By turning the killing spree into a game with no obvious winning criteria, the movie defeats itself. Not only is the resolution unsatisfying, but it sets the bar for the "willing suspension of disbelief" unreasonably high. This is another instance in which a trailer promises a level of intrigue and intelligence that the full feature cannot deliver. Law Abiding Citizen is sloppy and disappointing.

Law Abiding Citizen (United States, 2009)

Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Gerard Butler, Colm Meaney, Bruce McGill, Leslie Bibb
Screenplay: Kurt Wimmer
Cinematography: Jonathan Sela
Music: Brian Tyler
U.S. Distributor: Overture Films
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 2009-10-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1