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Movie Review

Life isn’t always fair. And "justice" isn’t always just.

This is something most of us instinctively understand. But when an unimaginable cruelty smashes into your belly like a wrecking ball, well, sometimes people snap.

Clyde Shelton watched an assailant rape and kill his wife as he wept and bled on his foyer floor. Then, as he was losing consciousness, he saw the same assailant pick up his young daughter and carry her into the recesses of the house.

It was the last time Clyde saw his little girl alive.

The ensuing criminal trial should’ve been a slam dunk. Clyde saw the man who murdered his wife and daughter. He saw his accomplice who ransacked their house. Their DNA was found at the scene. But for some reason, the DNA evidence isn’t admissible, and Clyde’s own testimony may be in doubt because he blacked out during the assault. Nick Price, the city’s hotshot prosecutor, is reluctant to take the case to trial, fearing a loss might tarnish his sterling win-loss record. So he cuts a deal: the death penalty for one of the attackers, a third-degree murder charge—with about a five-year sentence—for the other. "Better some justice," he reasons, "than no justice at all."

Clyde is in shock, and he begs Nick to reconsider. The jury will believe his testimony, Clyde says. He saw it all. He knows exactly who did it, and when, and how, and how much it hurt.

"It’s not what you know, Clyde," Nick says. "It’s what you can prove in court."

Ten years later, assailant No. 1 is given a lethal injection—supposedly painless. But the chemicals have been tampered with and the man dies in agony. Assailant No. 2 is found in an empty warehouse—owned by Clyde—his body cut into 25 pieces.

The cops arrest Clyde. And Clyde begins to talk. He wanted the men dead, he admits. He planned their murders often in his mind, he says. But it’s all frustratingly short of a confession, as Clyde���s well aware. And when Nick—now charged with putting Clyde behind bars—says that he "knows" Clyde did it, Clyde serves up a line that’s haunted him for a decade:

"It’s not what you know. It’s what you can prove in court."

Clyde’s guilty as all get-out, of course, and we soon learn that he didn’t just have the actual criminals in his sights. Turns out, the grieving father plans to murder everyone associated with the case, even if he has to do it from a prison cell.

And he’s saving Nick for last.


Positive Elements

Law Abiding Citizen can at times be read as a cinematic rumination on justice: What it is, what it means and how it sometimes goes awry. We can appreciate Clyde’s heartbreak here—though few of us could say we truly understand how he’s suffered. If justice had been adequately served the first time around, the film tells us, the terror that ensued would’ve been avoided.

But Nick cares for justice, too, and he also cares for his family. He has a 10-year-old daughter of his own now, and while we learn he’s missed many of her cello recitals, he makes up for that in the end by—well, attending one.

Spiritual Content

Clyde tells Nick that he wants to tear down the country’s faulty judicial system. "[I’m going to] bring the temple down on your head," he says, alluding to the story of Sampson. "It’s going to be biblical." Though he doesn’t seem to be a man of great faith (he says his wife and daughter don’t think or feel anything, now that they’re dead), he does sound rather like an angry Old Testament prophet at times, wanting to see "the righteous prosper and the wicked suffer."

"This guy’s not God," Nick tells his assistants as they try to stop Clyde’s killing spree. "He’s not all-powerful. He’s just well prepared."

Sexual Content

In a very violent, very quick scene that should make everyone who sees it sick to their stomach, Clyde’s wife is simultaneously raped and killed.

And we’re left disturbingly unclear as to what happens to Clyde’s daughter—a girl of maybe 6 or 7—in the moments before she’s murdered.

Clyde strips naked as the police close in on his house (to show he’s unarmed) and reveals his posterior to the camera. A partially nude—unconscious—woman is seen.

Violent Content

The trailers make Law Abiding Citizen look much like a run-of-the-mill thriller. And at times it is. But it contains several scenes that feel like they’re just a step or two away from Saw.

The most obvious homage to the torture-porn horror film comes fairly early on, when Clyde captures and incapacitates the man—Darby—who killed his wife and daughter. First step: He booby-traps a gun so it embeds spikes into Darby’s hand when the killer pulls the trigger. (We see the bruised wounds as Clyde lifts the gun out of Darby’s hand.) The spikes are loaded with a poison that paralyzes the man, but does not dull his ability to feel pain. Second step: Clyde straps Darby down on a table, preparing him for piece-by-piece dissection. He ties tourniquets around Darby’s limbs to make sure he doesn’t "prematurely" bleed out. He injects Darby with adrenaline to keep him awake. He brandishes a box cutter, which he tells Darby will be used to cut off critical parts of his body. He positions a full-length mirror so the paralyzed man can see the entire operation. And then he starts up the power tools.

This is super-sick stuff, folks. And it doesn’t really matter that we don’t see Clyde do any of the actual cutting. (We are shown the room after it’s done: There’s a limbless torso on the table, a disembodied head sitting on a nearby tray.)

Third step: Clyde sends a DVD of the entire operation to Nick’s house, where Nick’s daughter mistakenly watches it.

There’s more. Much more. During the lethal injection gone awry, we watch a man thrash around in agony, purple fluid (a mixture of blood and chemicals?) leaking through his chest and hospital gown as the veins in his arms, neck and face grotesquely distort under his skin. A prisoner is stabbed repeatedly in the neck, blood spattering onto walls and gushing from the wound. A weaponized cell phone kills a woman with a loud bang and an explosion of blood. People are punched, kicked, beaten with baseball bats, buried alive, shot, stabbed immolated and—frequently—blown up.

Crude or Profane Language

More than 50 f-words. A dozen s-words. Jesus’ name is abused a half-dozen times.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Someone snorts a line of cocaine.

Other Negative Elements

In order to catch Clyde, Nick decides he must violate his civil rights and illegally break into a warehouse Clyde owns. Clyde lets loose a profane, lewd tirade on a judge.


Law Abiding Citizen masquerades, at times, as social commentary. The villain here isn’t so much Clyde, the brilliant psychopath, or Nick, the glib public defender. Rather, it’s the judicial system itself—corrupted through plea bargains, legal precedents and (horrors!) civil rights. Clyde, played by the charismatic Gerard Butler, is offered as both a product of this system and it’s most horrific retribution. He’s a mash-up of Dirty Harry and Hannibal Lecter, a guy out for justice and blood in equal measure.

And, at least at first, audiences love him for it. At least the audience I sat with did.

It’s understandable on some level. We see Clyde suffer a great deal, and we feel for him. We know the system’s mistreated the guy, and we, like he, long to see justice done.

But as Clyde begins to grotesquely mow through his persecutors, few of the people around me seemed to care that Clyde wasn’t just "taking care" of the bad guys: He had become one. Some would laugh at his one-liners and applaud as he turned on the power tools. It was only after he killed his first "innocent" man in a particularly brutal fashion that the applause died down and the laughter faded.

"Vengeance?" Clyde thunders to Nick. "You think this is about vengeance?"

Of course it is. Few things offer as much primal satisfaction as seeing the bad guys getting what we believe is their "due." Forget mercy. Forget prudence. Forget even justice. We want our pound of flesh.

Which is why, of course, we have laws on the books that protect us—all of us—from our own vengeful, capricious, bloodthirsty hearts. The legal vagaries Law Abiding Citizen rails against are the very things that make our judicial system work (in most cases). Sure, plea bargains rarely satisfy. Protecting the civil rights of suspected criminals can stick in our collective craw. But like it or not, such things are broccoli and bean sprouts. We may not like ’em, but they���re still good for us.

Movies like Law Abiding Citizen, though, are not. This film offers little in the way of nutrition and absolutely nothing in terms of taste. It’s a terrifically violent waste of talent and celluloid—one that I wish I could stick in solitary confinement for a long, long time.

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Plot Summary

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