Sunday, November 10, 2013

Law Abiding Citizen (2009)

Director: F. Gary Gray                                   Writer: Kurt Wimmer
Film Score: Brian Tyler                                  Cinematography: Jonathan Sela
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Gerard Butler, Colm Meaney and Bruce McGill

There’s a scene that opens William Faulkner’s short story “Barn Burning” in which a poor white sharecropper has burned down the barn of his employer. He’s on trial in a country store that has been converted to an ad hoc courtroom and ultimately comes out victorious. He is certainly guilty, but has perpetrated his crime in such a way that while there is no physical evidence against him, it is absolutely clear to employer who did it. This is the premise of Law Abiding Citizen, and it’s a good one, taking at its genesis the vigilante genre that began in popular form with Death Wish, and updating it to indict the very legal system itself that lets killers plea-bargain against their accomplices, as if they were reliable witnesses in the first place. There’s also an aspect of A Few Good Men at work here as well, with Jamie Foxx playing a lawyer with an incredibly high conviction rate, who has done so by playing the percentages, no matter what the victims feel about it.

Gerard Butler’s wife and child are killed in front of him and when the case falls into the hands of Jamie Foxx, the lawyer settles on a deal that will give the accomplice the death penalty while letting the actual killer off with three years in prison. Naturally, Butler is outraged and yet Foxx doesn’t get it. And when the killer actually shakes Foxx’s hand outside the courthouse, it sets Butler off. But he’s patient. It’s not until ten years later that things begin to play out. First, the guy the killer turned evidence against is set to be executed by lethal injection, and when the injection comes he doesn’t just go to sleep but seizes in agony. Foxx then discovers that the machine has been tampered with. When the police go to catch the actual killer, assuming he has something to do with it, a phone call alerts him and he escapes . . . right into the waiting arms of Butler.

From then on the intricacy of Butler’s plan is remarkable. His dispatching of the killer is definitely satisfying, but the aftermath is a head-scratcher. That is, until it’s uncovered what Gerard really did for a living and the whole thing begins to makes sense. The one misstep in the entire production, however, is the ending. Even though the film is so incredibly good up until the ending, the resolution is very unsatisfying. Which is too bad. Director Gary Gray has had a couple of terrific successes with The Negotiator in 1998 and The Italian Job in 2003. Both of those films were well done, entertaining, and quite satisfying. This film, on the other hand, is left ambiguous and the audience is left with the uneasy feeling that lessons might not have been learned after all. It’s too bad, because most of the production was extremely fine. Great performances from Foxx and Butler are the centerpiece, but Colm Meaney and Bruce McGill as well as the great Viola Davis are terrific in support. Law Abiding Citizen, then, remains a flawed film, still worth watching but not the complete success the viewer would hope for, or expect from Gray.

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