Law Abiding Citizen is revenger’s tragedy

December 11, 2009 | Law Abiding Citizen Reviews

Revenge, as the man said, is a dish best served cold. The art of getting your own back has a long and distinguished history in the movies, and whether it’s James Cagney or Hannibal Lecter expressing the vengeance, cinema-goers have always found it to be an emotion they can understand.
My own personal favourite is Theatre of Blood, a film in which Vincent Price plays an actor who gets revenge on all the critics who gave him bad reviews and destroyed his career. He provides each of them with a Shakespearean death which is, at the same time, grotesque, appropriate, comical and horrific. All these qualities have to be present in an interesting revenge movie, and Law Abiding Citizen has them in abundance.
Gerard Butler plays Clyde Shelton, a Philadelphia engineer and proud father, whose life’s course is set one day when two men break into his house.
The men rape and murder Shelton’s wife and daughter while he lies stabbed but alive on the floor. The forensic investigation into the murders is later bungled, and one of the killers, Clarence Darby (Christian Stolte), the worst of them, walks free when a deal is cut between him and prosecutor Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx). Everything is in place for a nice but crazy realignment of justice, a job that will take many years, many turns, many tools, and untold acres of ingenuity.

Law Abiding Citizen has so many secrets it won’t mind me giving a few small ones away, just to whet your appetite for the cascade to come. The murderer Darby is lured by the mourning father into a trap that will turn out badly for him, a situation that brings Shelton and the prosecutor Rice once again into each other’s orbit.

The drama really hinges, or unhinges, on the relationship of the characters played by Butler and Foxx: both fathers, both interested in justice, they will each learn how to honour their beliefs. In good cop films, the differences between the best cop and the best criminal are less interesting than their similarities. The same happens here. These two guys are shadows of each other, two opposing versions of morality, but the elaborate unfolding of this film will show them to have been closer than anyone could have suspected.

From a position of supreme outrage, and then from his prison cell, Shelton sets out to take apart the whole corrupt system. The best revenge movies rely on a response that is both out of proportion and beyond belief: Shelton has a depth of hurt that can only be matched by the depth of his engineering genius. He will not only get back at the people who killed his family, he will get back at the people who failed to kill the people who killed his family, and the world that sustains them.

This might be nuts but it is excellent nuts. Shelton’s ambition is epic and his sights are clear to him, until they are dimmed with a kind of revenge psychosis — which makes you wonder if you placed your pity in the wrong place.

The fact that you are able to go along with this — and leap over many “come on!” moments — is mainly due to the performance of Butler. It has been more than a little exciting to watch the rise of Butler from small character parts and romantic interludes to fully fledged action hero.
He has done it with hard work and a prime, native believability: watching the sandals-and-pecs drama 300 or, more recently, Gamer, you felt instantly that Butler had the charisma to make a character likeable even when they were doing bad things. This might be understood to be the supreme test of an actor’s rightness for the movies, and Butler has the quality in spades.

If Russell Crowe ever grows up and finds the key to everyday amiability, he might turn out to be the new Gerard Butler. (But he won’t: even onscreen, Crowe now acts like a famous actor, which is the end.) The test for Butler will now be about how he can broaden and deepen his concerns as a performer, building on a formidable connection with the public. Law Abiding Citizen will be an important moment for him: it is the movie where this relatively new star took it to a new level, finding a crucial degree of internal magic to match the pyrotechnics.

Not everybody will agree. The movie is boysy and has annoyed some critics who wish life’s problems were reflected less noisily. But every film should be understood within the the rules of its own genre, and in both ways Law Abiding Citizen is a thrilling and successful version of what it sets out to be. It owes something to last year’s Taken, but F Gary Gray’s direction secures it as a movie with soul as well as explosions.

Jamie Foxx handles himself pretty well, unfolding the price of legal compromise in ways that complement and colour the rapid intensity of the picture. The secret of a happy life at the cinema, to my mind, involves you giving yourself up to fantasies and nightmares that hold you not always with their plausibility, but with their own inner conviction. With film, the question is not always, “Do I believe it?”; more often, it is “Do they believe it?” And in the case of Law Abiding Citizen they believe it so much that revenge becomes a thing you can taste.

Publication: London Evening Standard
Author: Andrew O'Hagan

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