Law Abiding Citizen
Gray directed The Negotiator, a tense, well written and directed thriller that I still love watching to this day. So with all this going for it how could anyone not be excited for the film?
Gerard Butler plays Clyde Shelton, a family man who is at home one day with his wife and child. They seem to live a normal, happy live, and it's tragically interrupted by a home invasion. Two men enter the house and brutally kill his wife and daughter.
Come the time to take the men to court, the lawyer, played by Jamie Foxx, sees that this case could be a difficult case and when he's presented with the chance of accepting a plea bargain from one and a guaranteed death penalty from the other, he leaps at it. Without much thought than his nigh on perfect win record, he takes the plea bargain. One of the men, the one who did the brutal killings, testifies against the other and sees him go to take the death penalty while he lives through a very short sentence.
Shelton is disgusted and hugely angered, and some ten years later he exacts his revenge against the people who killed his family and the corrupt system that failed him and them.
As I've already said I was really looking forward to this film, having really enjoyed The Negotiator and looking at a similarly themed story, although with a much darker tone, and a great pairing of Gerard Butler and Jamie Foxx, I was keen, and I wasn't disappointed.
Law Abiding Citizen is most definitely a thriller, and at a time when it's really hard to keep an audience on the edge of their seats, unsure of where the film might take them next, never mind getting a British audience shouting and leaping in surprise, this film manages to do just that and more.
Thrillers can be so play by the numbers these days, and in fact most of them are. You watch the story play out either ahead of the game, seeing the transparent twists well before they reveal themselves, guessing the turns as they happening, or worse still letting them pass by because they really weren't that interesting a surprise moment anyway.
It's rare when a thriller really comes along that holds misdirections well enough to truly keep you unsure of the next move, and surprise you when it does. This thriller borrows from Derren Brown by employing some slick misdirection while he prepares the big surprise, and it keeps those surprises coming.
It was this part of the film that really caught me the most because I've seen plenty of thrillers, they are my favourite genre, and I'm rather jaded by twists and turns they deliver, usually I'll be realising the way the plot is going before it actually gets there. It's not a deliberate thing though, it's just usually very easy to see, especially with the way Hollywood spells out films these days.
What happened with Law Abiding Citizen though was fantastic and had me right back into watching a thriller and reeling with the blows from the script. While I was watching there were little hints and clues from different characters that made you wonder, there were enough little moments and dropped lines and glances here and there to start you thinking that any answer could be the right one, and that camouflaged the real plot direction from me. I didn't second guess this film more than once or twice, and they weren't the major parts of the film either.
I'm heaping a lot of praise on the film already, so I think I do have to address something about the plot that wasn't so strong, the very closing scenes. Now I don't mean the ending of the film, because there is a definite ending to the story just that there's footage afterwards. Those closing scenes, post ending, are very clearly for the Hollywood studio, something there to leave a strong message of hope and positivity, something that really shouldn't be there because the ending is enough.
However the ending brought up a lot of conversation afterwards, was it too neat, was it just enough, and most importantly was it just too Hollywood? While some think it is Hollywood, I do feel that it needs those closing scenes to show what has been learned from the whole story and that something good has actually come out of it.
Imagine, if you have seen the film, that the ending had been somewhat different and the events had gone on undiscovered, think then of the difference to the tone and of the main character and his story, and of course the final message of the film. It would have totally changed what we saw and what connections we felt with Shelton. Personally I think it would have lost a lot of what it brought us without this ending and the closing scenes.
Aside from the closing scene and the uncertainty about the ending, which I think is good thing, the film has a great opening to it, leaping straight into events and wasting no time on the background of the main character which comes out well during the film. We see his family life shown quickly just before the violent attack enters his life and destroys it, setting him on this single minded path.
It's an interesting choice that, rather than revealing the character at the beginning of the film, or waiting until the story is in full flow and giving a full reveal of the background, we're not given it at the start and we get to understand it through the characters investigating Shelton in the story, as they discover it. It's also not a complete reveal either, nor is it the atypical character background that you would expect for this type of character, and I really enjoyed those scenes where the background is discovered. It's a large addition to the foundation of the story, but it's never over explained or demonstrated.
Another aspect of the character that the film manages to bring to the fore and doesn't even taint in the slightest is the way that the audience connects with and continues to sympathise with the lead character despite his continuing actions. Clearly, early on in the film, he loses the legal and moral high ground, I would argue that as soon as we see him with the killer who got away both these aspects are gone, and that really is early on in the film. Still we don't lose the connection or the sympathies for the character. That really does surprise me, and there's some excellent writing, direction and acting that makes that connection continue all the way to the end.
Looking back what does surprise me is that more wasn't made of the bracelet to keep pulling the audience back to that opening scene and force us to remember the instigating event which would bring back those sympathies, despite the fact he's torturing, killing and going well beyond revenge. I mean this in a positive way though, because the sympathies are built through the character and the actor without the need for this reminder popping up at every point. It's another point to the strength of the film.
There are some great plot developments through the film, and there are plenty of distractions from the main thread. I am a terrible one for guessing twists and turns, but here my attention was captured and manipulated by the writer and director, moving me back and forth between characters and different directions, keeping me from guessing the real direction of each twist and turn and building the tension. I loved that aspect of the film, I really couldn't see where it was going each time, although there were a few slips such as the tension builder as the clock passed six and the scenes that followed, but even then the following scenes didn't quite play out straight and managed to build tension and delay the moments.
These slip ups were few and far between though, and there were many more surprising and powerful reveals. There was one moment that really did surprise me, for the first time in years, and I really do mean that, the film punched me and the audience in the face. Think on this, a British audience leaping, shouting, and letting out long slow groans of relief afterwards, and I don't mean one or two in the audience, I'm talking about everyone. I even jumped and I was letting out one of those long, tension relieving groans. It's a fantastic moment for the film and the audience, and I do mean it when I say I've not been struck by a film like this in a long time.
F. Gary Gray does a wonderful job with the film, even better than the superb The Negotiator. It's well filmed and looks slick and stylish without taking away from the story. The editing is really good and keeps the pace running forward without dropping anything or missing any beats.
If I had to pick something else out to point as a negative then I'd have to say that the character development on the ancillary characters is often just enough and no more, I might have liked a little more building of the side characters, but really there was no need as the film concentrated on building that tension and keeping us guessing throughout the film, and any more might have spoiled the excellent distractions.
Finally, I have to mention the lead actors, and first I have to go with the weaker one, that of the lawyer played by Jamie Foxx. It's interesting because Gerard Butler was originally lined up to play this character but he decided to turn to the character of Shelton, a move that has done him, and the film, no end of good. Foxx though is undoubtedly the weaker character and actor. He barely shows emotion other than the confused or disgruntled, and when something more is called for he just doesn't deliver, he's acting the bold big man, and it's sometimes a soulless performance, particularly when something really personal and deeply upsetting happens to him.
However, what that does is make the performance of Gerard Butler even better, this could be the best performance of the actor to date and he's just going from strength to strength. His emotions are strong and you really do feel for him in the scenes in the beginning of the film, and he manages to carry that connection all the way through the film, even when his character makes some incredibly dangerous and un-likeable decisions, and that happens a lot.
The strong emotional up front performance by Butler is carried by his intense and unfaltering performance through the rest of the film. He's fantastic, and does remind me of the rougher cinematic stars such Richard Burton or Richard Harris, something I've said before and seems even more relevant after watching him in Law Abiding Citizen. This is a great performance from Butler, especially since he outshines Jamie Foxx.
Law Abiding Citizen is a superb thriller that keeps the tension going, provides some powerful moments that really do affect the audience (even a British one), and keeps you twisting and turning just behind the story as it races to a strong conclusion. The ultimate closing scenes may prove a little Hollywood, but the there is a strong ending to the main plot.
Superb thriller and excellent entertainment, well filmed, and a great performance once again from Gerard Butler, but not from Jamie Foxx.