‘Law Abiding Citizen’ movie review: gruesome Gerard Butler, Jamie Foxx revenge thriller

Test of a great thriller: is it still great after the credits have rolled? We don’t get too many of those. Test of a good thriller: is it good enough while you’re watching?

Law Abiding Citizen sits firmly in the ‘good thriller’ category. By the end, it has turned completely implausible, and on top of that, it isn’t even satisfying on an emotional level. 

But for the previous 100 minutes, director F. Gary Gray and writer Kurt Wimmer have provided a taut, suspenseful thriller that delivers levels of moral complexity to boot. By the end, they’ve painted themselves into a corner – I realize now that no explanation could have been satisfying. But it’s fun watching them paint.

In a home invasion robbery, inventor and gadget-maker Clyde Shelton’s (Gerard Butler) wife and daughter are brutally killed. He survives, getting a good look at the murderers before being knocked out. Police have arrested both suspects, who are about to go to trial.

But lawyer Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), who works for the district attorney, wants to guarantee a victory. So he negotiates a deal with Clarence Darby, who will testify against Rupert Ames and plead guilty to a reduced count of third-degree murder. 

His accomplice gets the death penalty, while Clarence gets a reduced sentence and will be out in a few years. Clyde is left with the image of Nick shaking hands with the man who murdered his wife and daughter.

Flash-forward ten years. Ames is about to be executed by (painless) lethal injection. But something goes terribly wrong, and he’s put through immense pain before dying. Police suspect tampering, and target his former accomplice, Darby. But Clyde gets to him first. He paralyzes his family’s murderer before killing him in the most gruesome way imaginable. And then gives himself up to police.

Mind you, all the above is enough for most features, but transpires in the first fifteen minutes of Law Abiding Citizen. Here’s the kicker: Clyde continues to murder those involved with his case from behind bars. And he continues to do so until he gets what he wants from Nick, which remains something of a mystery to Nick and the audience. “I’m gonna bring the whole system down on your head.” And he does.

But how does he do it? Surely, he must have accomplices working for him. But locked away in solitary confinement, how does he get word to them? Trying to figure this out and put the pieces together is where a lot of the fun in the film lies. I don’t think a satisfactory answer could be provided, but by the end they give us the least plausible scenario anyway, along with the most unimaginative delivery. Shame.

On top that, the finale is a thriller movie cop-out. Such a morally complex film most of the way – in movie logic, at least some of Clyde’s actions are justified, and he surely isn’t your standard bad guy – and then we get easy answers and black-and-white good-bad theorizing at the end. Double shame.

But until then, this is a fun ride. Gruesome and sometimes unpleasant – one shocking scene recalls Andrew Dominik’s Chopper – but never uninteresting. Here’s what they should’ve done: don’t explain how Clyde did it, and then give us a finale out of Fincher’s Se7en. That woulda been something.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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