I knew what I wanted to say about Law Abiding Citizen long before I ever finished the story, probably in the mid-60-page region.
First, the script. I’m looking at a September, 2008, shooting draft by Frank Darabont (previous revision by Kurt Wimmer). This script was also in the hands of Sheldon Turner and David Ayer. Apparently, the story has changed dramatically over the last few years. The version I have concerns Nick (Jamie Foxx), an assistant D.A. who must deal with a victim-turned-vigilante-but-actually-a-twisted-criminal-mastermind (Gerard Butler). His name's Clyde. He wreaks havoc on the entire city of Philadelphia all from inside his solitary jail cell. It brings to mind aspects of other films like Silence of the Lambs, The Dark Knight, and Shawshank Redemption (with a smattering of The Green Mile). Kind of intriguing, isn’t it? How does he do it? Once they get that hook into you, once he starts wreaking havoc from inside his jail cell, you have to read to the end to find out exactly how it was all done.
Darabont feels like the natural choice for this kind of material. He was set to direct the film, but rumor has it there was an ugly parting of ways between the director and committee of ten producers on this project. Yes, I said TEN producers. I don’t know the details, but dealing with ten producers sounds like a recipe for a nightmare. Now the film is being directed by F. Gary Gray who gave us The Italian Job.
I’m not sure how well I can articulate this, but what bugs me about this story is that it has such potential for greatness and yet the filmmakers, which I’m sure includes a lot of interference from this bloated committee of producers, seems content to let this story flounder in the realm of marginally above grade B-movie thrills.
You have a man named Clyde, who, in the opening scenes, loses his wife and daughter to a pair of murdering bad guys. Loved it. Totally gripping. Then, he deals with Nick and some other attorneys. He’s infuriated that only one of the two bad guys will be prosecuted. The other will confess, testify against his accomplice, and in return, he’ll serve a minimum sentence. The other will get lethal injection.
Cut to about ten years later. It’s come time for the bad guy to get his lethal injection, which goes horrifyingly wrong in a scene almost reminiscent of the botched electrocution scene in The Green Mile. The other bad guy is also coincidentally butchered beyond recognition around the same time. Naturally, the cops pick-up Clyde who gives himself over willingly. While they have Clyde in jail, he starts making demands. Give me a comfy bed and I’ll confess to the murder. So they give him a bed and he confesses. Then he says, give me my iPod and I’ll confess to something else. And they do. And this goes on until he starts promising that he’s going to kill every man in the room.
And they do, indeed, start dying in very interesting ways.
Great setup. Loved it.
How Clyde accomplishes these amazing feats, I would not dream of revealing. Why he does these things, however, is a cause for a script review, because this is where I believe the script falters.
Clyde is obviously doing these things because he’s never gotten over the deaths of his wife and daughter. Perfectly understandable. He’s also doing these things to exact revenge onto those responsible for the murders and subsequent injustice that followed. Okay, I get that. He wants to stick it to a justice system that only half succeeded for him. In his scenes with Nick, though, he only goes so far as to impress upon him the pain of losing one’s family and the need to be angry about injustices and compromises with murderers.
Eh. That’s rather weak.
A mastermind would not need to sit inside a jail cell and wreak havoc on a city just to make those minor points about pain and anger. A mastermind would sit inside a jail cell and wreak havoc on the justice system to make points about the system’s inherent weaknesses. And this is the core of my concern: there needs to be something deeper and more meaningful here to warrant the telling of this story. You may recall that, in The Dark Knight, the Joker wasn’t just crazy and committing random acts of terror on the city. He was out to make a point to Batman about human nature. Remember what he said?
Their morals, their code... it's all a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. You'll see - I'll show you... when the chips are down, these civilized people... they'll eat each other. See, I'm not a monster... I'm just ahead of the curve.
That’s what this story is damn near crying out to be, what it’s missing: a deeper point that Clyde should be making about the justice system.
Halfway into this script, I wanted to just rewrite all of the dialogue. And then I realized that the dialogue is weak because the setup is weak. The setup is weak because Clyde’s motivations and reasons are weak. You need a higher purpose here, an ongoing conversation between Nick and Clyde as to whether one should have faith in the justice system or not just as Batman and Joker were having an ongoing discussion about human nature. And this debate begins when they talk about how one of those two murderers gets away and continues through his time in incarceration. In the end, Nick should triumph, the system is faulty but still good. As it is, this story regresses into a who-can-outhink-the-other-contest, which isn’t as satisfying.
Three more points:
1) At first, Clyde demands that he only speaks with Nick and relents when other lawyers insist on participating in the talks. Why make such demands if he’s only going to relent and nothing becomes of it? If Clyde can get them to put a bed in his cell, he can certainly force them into letting him talk to Nick and Nick alone. That’s what this story calls for, an evolving relationship between Nick and Clyde, just as you had an evolving relationship between Clarice and Hannibal Lecter. This should only be about Clyde and Nick, a contest of beliefs and wills. So when, say, Clyde makes demands about having records in his cell and someone other than Nick interrupts and answers that question for Nick, you’re undermining an opportunity to develop that relationship between protagonist and antagonist.
2) A note about Nick’s temperament. Nick is quick to go off the handle, to threaten Clyde, and leap over a table to strangle him, etc. That’s dangerous, because that could undermine audience support of the protag. They will respect and support more a man who can stay focused and keep his cool. But the test, the inner conflict, for Nick could be him keeping his cool when he wants so much to kill Clyde. And Clyde’s always prodding him and trying to push him over the edge. That could create a tension and a battle of wills between the two characters that would add layers to the dialogue and the scene. And of course, ultimately, Nick would be able to defeat Clyde because he kept his cool and didn’t fly off the emotional handle as Clyde did in seeking revenge. For me, amateurish screenwriting is very much like that, sudden extremes of obvious emotions in characters. But, over time, when a writer matures, I think you delve more into subtleties, layers, and subtext in the scenes. Because you know enough to ask yourself: “what would be more interesting - a guy who is disciplined in keeping his cool facing his ultimate challenge and watching him struggle to keep his cool throughout the conversation or a guy who flies off the handle whenever he’s pissed?” You know good and well that Clarice wanted to scream her head off in the dungeon with Hannibal, but she didn’t. She kept her cool, stayed focused on the case, and struggled through it. We could see her struggling and supported her for the difficulties she was going through.
3) It’s a bad decision that the Spook would make himself known to Nick and the team in order to pass along a bunch of verbal exposition. THEY should be the ones to find HIM.
To everyone’s credit, there’s a lot of great suspense and thrills. How the murders play out and how Clyde accomplishes these things are the elements that would impress some people who see the film. But this could’ve been so much better. And what would’ve made this story and this film a classic, something that would make people want to revisit this again and again and again, is a deeper point and an evolving relationship between the two main characters.
I can already hear the argument: “what the hell’s wrong with above average B-movie thrills?” I say fuck that. Shoot for the moon.