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Law Abiding Citizen

Movies that feature the killer-as-teacher trope walk a fine line. On one hand the killer has a possibly valid point; on the other hand he's torturing and/or killing people. There are some basic requirements in that the killer has to be ruthless, smart, and charismatic and the lesson they're teaching has to have a kernel of truth in it. However, their methods are so extreme that it's impossible to accept the lesson as a whole.

This has been done in recent years with the Joker in The Dark Knight, John Doe in Seven, Jigsaw in the Saw movies, and even Hannibal Lecter. All of these killers are committing their crimes with little thought of "getting away with it," but instead the primary goal of their reign of destruction is to teach the protagonist a lesson. The lesson usually applies a clear and even logic but twists it to such a hyperbolic extent that anything learned would be Pyrrhic for the learner.

Finally, in order for the movie to hit home, the moral to learn must so be terrifying or difficult for the protagonist to accept or the methods must so be extreme that the audience comes down on the protagonist's side, if only slightly.

Law Abiding Citizen interestingly attempts to apply this frame to an extremely sympathetic character, but one of the many flaws of the film is that the killer's lesson and motivation is so scatter-shot or contradictory that it loses almost all it's power as the engine of the story and cannot overcome the repugnance of his actions or massive stacks of implausibility that mount near the end of the movie.

Law Abiding Citizen finds Gerard Butler starting the movie in his best "normal guy" wig to play Clyde Shelton, a killer-to-be whose family is murdered by a psychopath and his "I'm just here to burgle" accomplice during a random home invasion. Clyde is denied complete justice when Nick Rice, an assistant DA played by Jamie Foxx, decides to strike a deal with the more loathsome and guilty of the two thugs in order to get two guaranteed convictions instead of risking a loss at trial. The abortion of justice is a bitter pill for Clyde and ten years later he gets a haircut and launches a campaign of righteous "punishment" aimed at those he feels are responsible, from the criminals who murdered his family all the way up to the mayor of Philadelphia.

While it is fun to watch Butler play Clyde, who is a twisted mix of Jigsaw, MacGyver, and the Punisher, the murkiness of his motivations and philosophy make him a frustrating character to nail down. He starts by punishing the criminals he knows are responsible for the murder of his family and branches out to other he feels are responsible, but quickly starts targeting people whose only sin would be compliance in the face of an abused system.

By that logic, I should be checking my laptop for bombs right now, as I personally haven't done anything to try to fix the modern legal system.

Clyde also seems to contradict himself. After his initial arrest, when the DA has nothing creating a concrete link between him and his first two murders, he makes a compelling legal argument for being granted bail, but when the judge moves to grant him his rights he rails against her for not keeping him in custody when he's talking about confessing to murder. He finally makes her a target not only because she presided over his initial case, but also seemingly in part because she's willing to compromise someone's civil rights.

Indeed, the line, "You want me to deny him his civil rights?" seems to be a death-song in this movie. Ironically, it would seem that if Clyde had his way, suspicion of murder would be enough to deny someone their rights. When it comes to the question of whether Clyde is out for petty revenge or wants to actually enact some change, the movie doesn't seem to know which side it wants to come down on, and that ends up distancing the viewer from the story.

The plot itself is an increasingly difficult exercise in suspending disbelief, and while it's unrealistic and far-flung, much of the movie effectively works to keep you guessing as to how Clyde's plan will play out. When a big reveal shows up near the end of the film, however, it essentially takes all the wind out of the story. When the movie takes away the tension of wondering when the next attack is going to come and lays all it's cards on the table, it turns out it's a very boring and lazy hand.

If nothing else, the majority of the movie is exciting and has engaging, if not borderline hammy, performances from it's two lead actors. There are definitely a few good visceral shocks, squirms, and explosions packed into an increasingly ridiculous story. In the end, the movie's undoing lies in the erratic behavior and motivations of it's killer-teacher, which must be applied uniformly in order to work well.

It's muddled enough that I can't whole-heartedly recommend it, but at the same time it's entertaining enough that it wouldn't be a complete waste of your time. That is, if you don't mind late-90s-crime-movie level implausibility and not knowing, exactly, who you should be rooting for.

Matt Sameck

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