Law-Abiding Citizen (2009)

Rated: R for strong bloody brutal violence and torture, a scene of rape, and pervasive language.
Length: 118 minutes
Grade: B+HBC=B
Budget: $50 million
Box Office: $109 million (73 U.S., 36 Intl.)

Written by: Kurt Wimmer (Ultraviolet, The Recruit, Equilibrium, Thomas Crown Affair, and Sphere) Allow me to take a moment here for the vast majority of you who have never heard of the movie Equilibrium, if you like Sci-Fi or Action at all, go rent that immediately. You will not be disappointed. One of the most unrecognized movie gems I can name.
Directed by: F. Gary Gray (Be Cool, The Italian Job, The Negotiator, and a bunch of rap videos)
Starring: Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler
With: Colm Meaney, Bruce McGill, Leslie Bibb, and Regina Hall

After unexpectedly surviving a home invasion in which his wife and daughter were brutally killed, Clyde Shelton is victimized all over again by a justice system which cuts a deal with the worst bad guy. Shelton then decides to take matters into his own hands first against the murderer and then against the entire corrupt system of deal-makers and politicians.

Entertainment Value: B+
This is a very compelling movie. However, you have to endure the first twenty minutes in order to get there. And trust me, we almost didn’t, since there are three atrociously violent and disturbing scenes at the start. It was only other people who had seen it which persuaded me to continue after we had decided to quit. I still don’t think the movie justifies the opening scenes’ brutality, but that’s more because they could have been done differently, not because the movie isn’t worth seeing. It’s a case where the movie could have been much more appealing without what wasn’t really necessary. But, once you get past that, it’s not that the movie becomes cleaner but that the plot becomes much more interesting.

Superficial Content: H
Drugs/Alcohol C, Sex/Nudity C, Violence H, Language F
There is one scene with a man using cocaine and a woman partially naked nearby. Language is about as heavy as it can be. But the real concern here is violence, and trust me it is brutal, gruesome, ongoing violence. You’ll notice that I gave it an H on an A-F scale. This is NC-17 stuff, in my opinion and should absolutely not be watched by anyone who isn’t an adult. In fact, I don’t even want to describe the particulars because they are so awful. Gerard Butler seems to have a thing for hyper-violent movies, at least if Gamer is any indication. Just trust me that if you have an aversion to disturbing violence like torture or rape or children being harmed, this movie is not for you.

Significant Content: B
Justice is a non-negotiable requirement, and it is fundamentally unjust to settle for what you can get rather than forcing people to take responsibility for their actions. A justice system which doesn’t understand this must be reformed. Lessons learned in blood are the most memorable.

Artistic/Thought Value: C
Here is another instance where I really have to grade it up and down. There’s so much to think about and discuss here, that it really deserves a better grade. But in being made so violent, it’s really impeded it’s own chances as a film to have a wider impact on people who should be asking the sort of questions this movie asks. It couldn’t have been made any less than R rated, but it didn’t need to be as awful as it was in order to do what it wanted to do.

Discussion Questions:
~What is Clyde’s definition of justice? Discuss some of the things he does to people in the name of justice. Which of them would you agree with or disagree with? Do you think the problem with our justice system is that it is too nice to criminals?
~Is there a difference in responsibility from the person who commits the crime and the people who then make it so that he is not properly punished for that crime (such as his attorney or the judge)?
~How essential is it that we have a trial system where the defendant always gets an advocate (called the adversarial system)? What about a system where all legal experts were obligated to try to bring out the truth (inquisitorial system)?
~In the context of this movie, what would repentance mean? Describe some of the changes that would have to be made for real repentance to take place in the justice system?
~When you’re watching this movie, who do you want to win? Do your sentiments ever change over the course of the movie? How do you feel about the final scene?
~The judicial oath is taken on a Bible and to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” How much does this oath also imply an obligation to seek a pure goal of perfect justice rather than the inferior goal of simple deterrence or incapacitation in a trial?
~Clyde accuses Nick of doing his job just well enough to look good to the public, which means completely wrong in terms of justice. What do you think of this allegation?
~Clyde says that he doesn’t have to worry about what his wife and daughter would think of his actions since only the living matter. (“My wife and daughter don’t feel anything.”) How is his personal view of morality shaped by his implied belief that there is no eternal life or God watching over us? Why would someone say that the only reason we can stand to live with injustice in this world is by believing that God will ultimately achieve perfect justice in the next? How would Clyde have benefitted from the knowledge of Jesus Christ?
~In what ways would you say that Clyde behaves as if he is God? To what degree is his representation of God accurate? How is it limited? What is the main difference for a Christian between God and Clyde?
~Given that this movie raises serious objections against our justice system, would you say that it’s a good movie for the ordinary public to watch? How important is it for people to have na├»ve (even misplaced) faith in their court system?
~English jurist William Blackstone famously said that it’s better for ten guilty persons to go free than for one innocent person to be punished. Benjamin Franklin increased this ratio to 100 to 1. What do you think?
~At least one commentator alleged that this movie is essentially a defense of terrorism. What do you think? If the key definition of terrorism is targeting people unrelated to the cause of the conflict, is Clyde a terrorist or not? In what way, if any, would you say that this movie is a vigilante movie where the real perpetrator is the system itself rather than a particular evildoer? Is there a distinction between vigilante movies, terrorist movies, and this one?

Poignant or memorable scenes:
~The opening scene. Was this necessary? Movies show rather than telling, but are there some things which are better off told rather than shown precisely because they are too powerful to show?
~The bail hearing in the court. Are Clyde’s criticisms fair or exaggerated?
~The end discussion in the cell.
~The execution scene in the beginning. What do you make of the side-by-side imagery of the cello performance with it?
Overall Grade: B
An extremely brutal movie which is clever, well-acted, and very thought-provoking. This could have been an A if only they had decided to make it that way.

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