Sometimes, I wish I could unplug my brain while I'm watching movies. I know that a lot of people have mastered this particular trick, but it's not something I've ever managed. My dad could do it. Give him a tricky plot and a sense of comeuppance at the end, and he was happy, or, failing that, tell him dirty jokes. He was, shall we say, undiscriminating. He would have seriously dug Law Abiding Citizen (2009, directed by F. Gary Gray). Hell, while I was watching it, I was grooving on it, myself. It's slick and well-mounted; it unfolds with the precision of fine clockwork. Unfortunately, I started thinking about it long before it ended. As a piece of pop cinema, it's not bad. It's exciting, intricate, and provides a sense of justice for the audience. As a moral exercise, it's horrifying.
The problem with this movie is the nature of its villain and the direction of its character arc for its hero. It's one of those movies whose political motives are pitched to appeal to a broad spectrum, without any strong conviction of its own. It lets itself be led astray by its nature as a crowd pleaser.
The film opens with a home invasion. The victims of the invasion are the family of inventor Clyde Shelton, who watches as the invaders rape and murder his wife, and murder his daughter. Clyde survives and the invaders are apprehended, but when they come to trial, one of the perpetrators rolls on his accomplice and gets off with murder in the third and a three year sentence, in spite of being the mastermind and the actual killer. Clyde implores prosecutor Nick Rice not to make the deal, to try them both, but Rice knows how the system works and makes the deal. Ten years elapse. At the execution of one of the invaders, something goes awry and instead of dying painlessly from lethal injection, as the law demands, his death is gruesome in the extreme. The execution has been sabotaged. When the law descends on his partner, the partner flees at the behest of a mystery benefactor who wants him free. That benefactor is Clyde, who captures him, and executes him himself. Then Clyde allows himself to be captured. Then he makes the system dance. Rice becomes his adversary, trying to get ahead of Clyde, who somehow orchestrates targeted murders of everyone in the legal system who he has judged to have denied him justice, going through them one by one in ever more elaborate traps. Nick senses that he's last, and Clyde, it seems is teaching Nick a lesson...
There's certainly a precedent for this kind of absurd story. Clyde Shelton, played by Gerard Butler, is an N-th generation descendant of Doctor Mabuse, who ruled his criminal enterprise from his cell at the asylum, by way of Hannibal Lecter. He's a kind of superman. Jamie Foxx's Nick Rice, on the other hand, is another in a long line of ambitious lawyers who are more interested in winning than in justice. He's too slick for his own good, but he's a man with convictions. He believes he's doing right. These are movie characters, and you've never met these people in real life and you never will. But that's okay. It's a movie, after all. Unfortunately, movies take the pulse of the societies that create them.
Here's how I view the coding of this movie. Clyde is the populist right, fed up with "activist" judges and disgusted by the rights assigned to the accused even when they're obviously guilty. His vow to take down the whole system, from the hub of government on down, looks suspiciously like Tim McVeigh. He's vigilantism. Nick is the liberal system: weak, handcuffed by his principles, an archetype of the gladhanding man from the government who is of absolutely no help. The arc of the movie pulls Nick rightward, toward Clyde. Clyde, by rights, should be a loathsome character, but the movie hedges with him. We SEE the crime that drives his hatred. The audience even sympathizes with him. There's a visceral thrill derived from watching his schemes succeed. And Rice only becomes successful in combating Clyde when he goes outside the system,when he utters the line "Fuck civil rights." Revenge movies have catered to this mob mentality for a long time, and every time they get to this point, I die a little, because the terrorists have won.
Do I think this is what the filmmakers intended? Actually, I don't. I think it's a completely accidental bundle of movie cliches that add up to this political coding without conscious thought. Certainly, F. Gary Gray and Jamie Foxx aren't Tea Partiers by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, I think it absorbs it all through osmosis. It's an incoherent bunch of elements that have somehow taken on a life of their own.
In any event, I was increasingly uncomfortable with the subtexts of this movie as I watched it, which is a pity, really, because at a surface level as a thriller, this is state of the art. It's beautifully shot, expertly edited, and it even has a sense of style. If I could just turn off my brain, I could even enjoy it.