For many men, movies of vengeance are a great pleasure. Law-Abiding Citizen is one of the finest and most original.
I was keen to see Law-Abiding Citizen because I am a fan of F. Gary Gray’s movies. His “Italian Job” (reviewed here, scroll to bottom of article)) was a fine, funny movie, with assured and exciting direction married up with a clever heist plot. I also liked “Be Cool” though it did not have the tight plotting of The Italian Job. But still, a pretty good track record for someone directing a modern thriller.
Law-Abiding Citizen opens with Gerard Butler’s Clyde Shelton getting ready for dinner with his wife and young daughter. The little we see of their house suggests a comfortable middle-class existence. There is not much time to see it, as a knock on the door signals a brutal house invasion. Two psychopathic killers beat, bind and stab Butler, leaving him for dead. As he bleeds out, they murder his wife and child. All of this is (mercifully) shot in quick cut-aways. This is the first shock, how brutal and uncompromising this movie is willing to be.
A long shot across a wintry Philadephia tracks to Jamie Foxx, the prosecuting attorney responsible for prosecuting the two killers, now in captivity. Foxx, more concerned with keeping up his conviction rate than with justice, makes a deal with the most evil of the two murderers, who as a result gets off with a light sentence. Unfortunately for Foxx, Butler, who has survived, see the murderer shake Foxx’s hand. Butler, denied justice and shocked beyond comprehension, wanders off, a broken shell of a man. The movie pauses, we take a breath, evil and brutality have traded off to cynicism and injustice. Law-Abiding Citizen has already taken us through the wringer and it is only the first act.
The stage is set but for what? Time passes and suddenly horrific revenge is taken against the two men. Butler’s Clyde Shelton reappears and makes it plain that he will kill and kill until he brings the whole rotten system to the ground.
The beating heart of the movie are the head-to-head confrontations between Gerald Butler and Jamie Foxx, each trying to bend the other to his will. Foxx has all the power of the state and Butler has nothing to lose. Gerard Butler is magnificent here and shows us a clever complex man, with a hole burnt through his soul. Clyde Shelton could have been played as a ranting angry man. Instead Butler gives us a quick, coldly intelligent man who we believe can bring down the Philadelphia legal system. More than that we sympathise with him, even as he commits atrocious acts of revenge. Butler produces some magnificent acting, never playing to type, never softening the character, yet he still manages to engage our sympathies.
Jamie Foxx is almost equally good as the prosecuting attorney Nick Rice, whose conscience is troubled but not enough to give Butler what he wants. On-screen, these two game each other, mis-direct and lie, looking for a weakness. Watching them try to intimidate each other is electrifying. Even outside the orbit of these two men, the ensemble playing by some very good and seasoned actors is perfect and builds real depth into the movie.
Law-Abiding Citizen is a tone-poem in coldness. Philadelphia looks bleak and bright in the cold winter sun. Breath steams, the metal of cars is too cold to touch, grey ice and snow drape the depressingly ugly buildings of old-town Philadelphia. Everyone in the movie feels alone and powerless, further dehumanised by F. Gary Gray’s signature helicopter tracking shots. Grey, cold and bleak.
Above everything else this is the director’s movie. Exciting and incredibly tense, what makes this movie special is that Gray absolutely refuses to pander to thriller stereotypes, either in the story or with the characters. In fact Gray plays with us. Ruthlessly. You think you know where this story is going to go? Think again.
This is not a movie for everyone. It takes a strong stomach to watch some of the things Gerard Butler does in his quest for vengeance. If your impression of F. Gary Gray was formed around the charming, cuddly criminals of Italian Job, then be warned, this is very different. Completely without warmth, completely uncompromising and very tense this is one of the finest thrillers of recent years. LAC is immensely satisfying, as it refuses to submit to cliché and movie convention and instead tells a rip-roaring story. Even the twisty ending has a satisfying note to it.
There will be no better thriller this year.
Law-Abiding Citizen is on general release in England from the 27th November
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