Or How to Review an Archetypal Movie, Again
By John Lobell
A while back, I did a review of Phantom of the Opera in which I took reviewers to task for not knowing what the movie was about. (See https://www.cinemadiscourse.com/the-phantom-of-the-opera/ )
As those who make movies move to explore archetypal themes, they are leaving the reviewers behind, who can only comment on production values.
Law Abiding Citizen is, on the surface, one of those revenge movies in which a man’s family is killed, and he takes revenge. In modern incarnation, it begins with Charles Bronson in Death Wish, and will continue with Mel Gibson in Edge of Darkness, the preview for which was shown with the screening of Law Abiding Citizen that I saw.
But actually, Law Abiding Citizen is closer to In the Line of Fire, in which the Malkovich character is a Bodhisattva who sacrifices himself for the redemption of the Clint Eastwood character. What is annoying is that none of the reviewers get it.
A. O. Scott in the New York Times writes:
Law Abiding Citizen, a blunt and sadistic revenge thriller starring Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler, occasionally pauses from the mayhem to stage a solemn debate about law, justice and morality. Mr. Butler, playing a family man whose wife and daughter were murdered by thugs, feels he was let down by the system, which gave one of the thugs a light sentence in exchange for testimony against the other thug, who was sentenced to death. Mr. Foxx, the prosecutor who made that deal, thinks that the system, however imperfect, did its job. But really, Law Abiding Citizen has about as much to say about real-life legal issues as Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen had to say about defense policy. And it has less ethical gravity than any three of the Saw movies.
You can go on Rotten Tomatoes for other reviews, but this pretty well sums it up.
To the contrary, Mr. Scott, there could not be more gravity, for there is nothing less here than the transformation of the Western self. How well that is done, we leave to the movie reviews. That it is being done, for that we need CinemaDsicourse.
Foxx’s character, Nick Rice, is an assistant district attorney who is ruthlessly ambitious. He thinks he is a good guy, but he is flawed. He is more interested in his conviction rate and his political advancement than in what we know is right, and he would know is right if he were in touch with his inner moral voice. As Joseph Campbell describes the Western notion of the corruption of the self, it comes from identification with the role rather than the true self. Those around Rice – other ADAs, the defense lawyer, the judge, the district attorney, the mayor, etc. – are similarly corrupt.
All of the reviews miss that Clyde Shelton, Butler’s character, is not out for revenge. It is ten years after the incident, and as he says he could have slaughtered everyone, including Rice and his family, any time in those ten years. Law Abiding Citizen is not about “law, justice and morality,” or Shelton’s revenge, it is about the state of Rice’s soul. Shelton has dedicated himself to bringing Rice to a realization of his false way of being, and to opening him to his inner moral voice, which Shelton believes he has, or he would not be making the effort. In other words, Shelton is trying to save Rice’s soul. The others who Shelton kills are similarly corrupt, and if Rice is acting in the mode of a Zen warrior, death is the right thing for each of them at that moment. (Note that in Death Wish, Bronson was playing an architect. In Law Abiding Citizen, Shelton happens to be an undercover agent who is an unstoppable super assassin, so he is well prepared for what he is to do, as is Malkovich in In the Line of Fire.)
So Shelton is not out for revenge and he does not want to kill Rice, he wants to save him. These things are difficult to convey with the clumsy script writing and acting available today, but it is what the movie is about. In the end, Shelton succeeds, and Rice is saved. The screenwriters cannot find words to put in his mouth to convey this conversion, nor can actors today show such things (the last time an actor portrayed transformation was when Li Gong went from dragon lady to drowned rat in the movie, Miami Vice). The best they can give us is that Rice now finds time to go to his daughter’s cello recital.
As I indicated above, there is a long movie tradition of the lone hero who has lost everything and sets out to right things. In the days of the classic western, the motivation was to make the world safe for civilized folk. In the Death Wish movies, it was that plus the satisfaction of personal revenge. Now it is to redeem one of the culprits. The use of skillful means to repair another. Buddhism seeps into the West.
The movie is a bit confused by the fact that it could not allow the blowing up of the entire city administration, despite a mayor more interested in protecting her power than the city, so we need some type of ersatz victory for Rice at the end of the movie. But the movie knows what it wants to say. It would be nice if at least one reviewer got it, but then that is why we have CinemaDiscourse.
(Added October 25)
Toward the end of my above review, I wrote: “Buddhism seeps into the West.” More on this thought.
How do we react to an offense from another? That offense might be a personal slight, or a murderous attack on ones family or even country. In admittedly over simplified terms, we might say that the Old Testament Biblical injunction is “an eye for an eye.” But what is that going to do? It is going to escalate a feud and there is no logic by which it might conclude. In addition, what happens to the souls of those gouging out each others eyes?
The New Testament Biblical injunction is “Turn the other cheek.” But what does that do? Perhaps the attacker will see the error of their ways and desist, but perhaps not. They will continue to strike people, and again, what happens to their soul? Buddhism takes the long view. In discussing Buddhism, there are a couple of premises we need to start with. The first is reincarnation. There is no escape. Even death does not put one out of ones suffering. You keep coming back until you get it right. This was the theme of Groundhog Day. Whether the reincarnation is literal or metaphorical, whether you come back as a human being or possibly a creature on another planet, these views vary. It is also dependent on your notion of time – your incarnations might be simultaneous. But there is no escape, we have to fix the situation.
The next is that your condition (usually suffering) now and in future incarnations is a function of the state of your consciousness (we might say soul, but that is not a Buddhist concept). People doing bad things usually have not rationally chosen to do so, but are in turmoil. Think of an immature disturbed child. So, back to our attacker. The attacker is disturbed, they are in turmoil, they are in pain. Striking back only reinforces their self-justification that the world is against them, and turning the other cheek still leaves them in distress.
What would be a more developed approach? Suppose you are a parent and your child attacks you, screaming “Daddy, Daddy, I hate you, I hate you!” You do not strike back, and you do not turn the other cheek. You are the adult, you assume that your child is in distress and you seek to resolve that distress. It might be a momentary tantrum; it might be a sign of a serious problem; either way, your responsibility is to understand the problem and help your child work through it, over come it, etc. It is not about you, it is about them. You are the adult.
All of this of course assumes that you have resolved your own turmoils, and that you have the maturity and the skillful means to do what is needed. Now let’s look at the Law Abiding Citizen. Shelton has taken on the role of the adult. He has looked into each of the culprits – the two attackers as well as the prosecutors, defense attorney, and judge. The one who murdered his family is the most difficult. It will take very violent action to get his attention. Hopefully, with the benefit of his horrific death and a few thousand reincarnations in lower forms, he will be able to get somewhere. Rice is the easiest. He has the potential to be saved in this lifetime, and it is on him that Shelton is concentrating his parental efforts. And Shelton is a human being as well as a Bodhisattva, so his actions are not going to be perfect. He is still learning, and can also come to a higher level of understanding in this lifetime before he moves on.
This way of thinking has always been in American movies, (think of The Minister’s Wife, in which Cary Grant, even though an angle, still has things to learn) but not with the focus we are now beginning to see. Law Abiding Citizen is a prime example of this move to a Buddhist view.