Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Law Abiding Citizen

Yesterday, I went to the movie "Taking Woodstock." Before it came on, I saw a trailer for a movie called "A Law Abiding Citizen."

This is what I gathered the movie to be about: A man (the law-abiding citizen) loses his pretty elementary-aged daughter and his wife to a home invasion. Apparently, the two are clubbed to death, as the trailer shows one of the invaders swinging a thick wooden bat as soon as the front door is opened to him.

The murderers are caught and as best I could gather, due to a plea or a deal, one got the death penalty, but the other a lighter sentence. The law-abiding citizen was upset. The prosecutor told him this is how justice is served in the United States.

The trailer cuts to the electric chair on the day the condemned murderer is to die. When all the witnesses have assembled to watch the execution, they find the condemned man already strapped to the chair, already dead, his body contorted into a pose of agony, as though he had been tortured. Then we see what is presumably the other murderer strapped to a table, with the law-abiding citizen approaching him with a circular power saw whirring.

Then we cut to the law-abiding citizen back in the prosecutor's office, this time presumably arrested for murder. For a moment, it doesn't look good for the citizen but soon there's an explosion, and all the cars in the courthouse parking explode in a dramatic chain reaction, apparently orchestrated by the citizen. A law enforcement person asks, what was he, a spy? and someone else answers that he was more than a spy, he was the brains behind the spies. Someone also says, if he's in jail, that's because he wants to be. The citizen himself tells the prosecutor that he is going bring the system crashing down on his head.

This is not a movie I plan to go to see. It seemed to me, from the trailer, that it was channeling the frustrations of many, especially males, who might feel powerless and unsafe in a society that seemingly cannot protect their families or bring justice to criminals. I was disturbed that we seemed to be expected to identify with the ironically named law-abiding citizen as he orchestrates a spree of ultra-violence to enact the justice denied him. I was unsettled, but not surprised, that violence was the one and only avenue explored for confronting injustice or changing the system and that the "lone hero" was, once again, Rambo style, going to singlehandedly bring the system "down." Clearly, we already have enough people out there with guns and not afraid to use them. Do we need to encourage this behavior? And what kind of powerlessness do people feel when they indulge in these vicarious fantasies of almost supernatural power and violence?

Interestingly, when I read about the film on the Internet, apparently the law-abiding citizen, whom I was led to believe was the hero, is a dangerous sociopath who must be stopped. The real hero of the story is the prosecutor, who was apparently forced by his superior to make the deal with one murderer to get his testimony against the other. According to the Internet, he must match his wits to the citizen's to stop him, especially after his own family is targeted. However, the trailer depicts him as a cold tool of a corrupt system.

I imagine I should have identified the citizen as a sociopath when he went after the strapped-down murderer with a circular power saw. Certainly, I found that disturbing. But I am so used to being out of sync with the rest of the world on the subject at violence, that I thought, OK, it must be me. The rest of the world must be OK with the powersaw revenge scenario. I was glad to find that apparently this is not so, and that the actions of the citizen are not meant to be heroic.

I wonder why the trailer gave a distorted view of the movie, leading me, in any case, to assume the narrative was on "the side" of the citizen? I also wish, as I often do, that we could produce more movies which explore alternatives to violence and in which the showdown doesn't come down to who can better mastermind using the various weapons of destruction that happen to be at hand. Also, I wish so much we could move beyond the "home invasion" scenario, which, I understand, is rare in real life but seems to inspire all sorts of ideas about stockpiling arsenals of weapons.

I think we have all seen this movie before, in one guise or another. Why do you think this movie keeps getting made?

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