I don’t usually describe films as “stunning,” but that’s the best word I can find for 2009’s Law Abiding Citizen. I am stunned by this film, from its opening scene to its finale it’s constantly surprising me and leaving me gasping for breath.
My younger brother recently invited me to watch this film with him. He didn’t describe it at all, and I didn’t read anything about it before watching it. So I had no idea what to expect from it. The cover wasn’t revealing at all. It just has close-ups of actors Gerard Butler and Jamie Foxx looking serious.
Law Abiding Citizen does something better than Seven, The Dark Knight, The Avengers, and Skyfall. It takes that brief moment when the villain gets captured and thrown into prison, and it turns it into an entire film. The reason that it’s so much better than those other films is that he’s able to accomplish all of his goals while being stuck in prison. In all of those other films, the villain had to set everything into motion and do all of their dastardly deeds beforehand in order to get to the moment where they were locked up. And it’s only after they get out of their cage that they can keep moving forward with their plan. The villain in Law Abiding Citizen wants to be in prison.
There’s much more to say about this film. Let’s do this film justice by talking about what a pleasant surprise Law Abiding Citizen is.
The Victim Strikes Back
John Doe and The Joker aren’t very sympathetic villains. They want revenge on the world for reasons we can only guess at. Khan Noonien Singh and Loki, on the other hand, are definitely sympathetic villains because we can see what they’ve lost in previous stories.
Law Abiding Citizen takes these two extremes and finds a happy medium in the form of Clyde Shelton (Butler). This seemingly unassuming husband and father witnesses the brutal rape and murder of his wife and young daughter. The audience is immediately thrust into his shoes of feeling a terrible longing to see justice done on the two men responsible for that heinous act. But we’re denied that satisfaction because of a fateful plea deal that District Attorney Nick Rice (Foxx) accepts from one of the killers.
Clyde is expected to just go along with this horrible injustice. Cut to 10 years later, and we slowly realize that Clyde has become an avenging angel. He doesn’t stop at making the two killers die in the most gruesome ways imaginable. He wants to take revenge on everyone who took part in the corrupt system that let one of the criminals go free.
And I can’t help rooting for Clyde the whole time.
Teaching a Lesson
The Joker wanted to send a message that “Everything burns.” Clyde wants to send a message that crime doesn’t pay. He wants to tear down the corrupt legal system he finds himself in, not simply to watch the world burn, but to build a better one in its place. His methods are extreme and violent, but sometimes theatricality and deception are powerful allies in pursuit of justice.
Clyde has plenty of opportunities to get out of prison. At his arraignment, he makes an impassioned plea to a judge and cites a little legal precedent until she’s completely convinced he should be released on bail. But right before she bangs her gavel, he starts shouting at her, pointing out her hypocrisy and simple-mindedness in letting him off so easily. This forces her to angrily reverse her decision and lock him up tight.
This serves two purposes: He gets sent back to prison where he wants to be, and he teaches the judge and everyone in the courtroom a lesson they won’t soon forget.
Clyde is an educator. People keep dying even while he is completely helpless in his jail cell. He spent an entire decade planning this moment out. He’s always a step ahead of his jailers and the audience.
I would argue that he wants to be stopped. He’ll go on killing people until the D.A. learns his lesson and stops trying to make deals with criminals. That’s what he really wants. Getting rid of the people in power who wronged him is a side benefit of his crusade against evil.
A Stunning Masterpiece
I haven’t even mentioned all of the shocking moments in this film. They are not for the faint of heart. Clyde’s brutally ironic attacks make John Doe’s look tame in comparison. Just when you think someone is safe, the film finds a way to turn the tables and kill them in a horrific way.
I won’t ruin the film’s brilliance by giving away its numerous twists and turns. Get a copy of this film right now and see for yourself what a stunning masterpiece Law Abiding Citizen truly is. It deserves a spot among hard-to-watch (but undeniably great) films about psychotic killers, such as Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Seven, and Psycho. Because it manages to make its villain so darn likable, even as he descends into the abyss of criminality in order to unearth society’s hidden ugliness. That’s just one law abiding citizen’s opinion.
This is the Deja Reviewer bidding you farewell until we meet again.
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