Law Abiding Citizen
The Monster Culture in Law Abiding Citizen
In his essay Monster Culture, Jeffrey Cohen critically analyzes monsters as a creation of the society using seven theses. Each thesis depicts a stage in the development of these monsters which according to Cohen embody the monstrous identities ascribed to those in the society who are thought to deviate from the expected standards. In essence, therefore, monsters reveal a society’s cultural values and accepted code of conduct through their depiction of the opposite of these qualities. In the Film Law Abiding Citizen, Clyde Alexander Shelton is a law-abiding citizen until he loses his family to a murder in a home invasion. After the law fails to satisfactorily punish the culprits, he takes it upon himself to punish the assailant, his accomplice, the justice system, and those who believe in it. This essay discusses his path to becoming a monster using Cohen’s seven monster theory theses.
Law Abiding Citizen
In the crime thriller film, Clyde Shelton loses his wife and daughter in a home invasion. The man responsible, Clarence Darby, gets away with a plea bargain after testifying against his accomplice Rupert Ames who is then sentenced to death. Dissatisfied with the outcome, Clyde decides to take revenge on both culprits, the prosecuting attorney, the justice system and those who believe in it, a feat he achieves despite his incarceration. While Clyde is evidently the monster in the film based on the seven theses, other people who drove him to his actions could be considered monsters as well. For instance, Ames and Darby break into Clyde’s house and kill his wife and daughter while Rice, the prosecuting attorney offers Clarence a lesser punishment than his crime warranted in exchange for information which would help maintain his perfect conviction record. This essay, however, applies the monster theory to Clyde who is arguably the key monster in the film.
The Seven Theses
First, the monster is a representation and symbol of the culture and represents something other than itself (Cohen 4). The monsters are brought into existence because of specific places, feelings, or events of a time period. In the film, the monster embodies the ineffectiveness of the justice system which allows criminals or guilty people to walk free rather than face the consequences of their actions. While representing himself during the bail hearing, for instance, Clyde confirms this assertion in his verbal assault on the judge who grants his bail request. He faults the judge and the justice system for letting him, a suspected murderer walk based on what he refers to as “bullshit legal procedures.” His next statement “And every day you let madmen and murderers back on the street!” further proves his point that the justice system is broken and therefore ineffective in delivering justice. Instead, the system lets them walk free regardless of the danger they pose to others in the society. By having granted him bail before rescinding on the decision after the verbal attack, the judge confirms these claims. Clyde’s case is, therefore, a symbol and representation of the system’s ineffectiveness and inability to deliver justice to the aggrieved, a fact Rice confirms in his statement “It's not what you know, rather, it’s what you can prove in court.”
Cohen’s second thesis claims that the monster always escapes (4). Whenever a monster is thought dead or defeated, it finds ways to return, a claim Clyde confirms. First, Bray alludes this fact in his reference to Clyde as a tactician. Bray further advices that the only way to stop Clyde is by “walking to his cell and putting a bullet through his head,” seemingly implying the futility of attempts to defeat Clyde. Furthermore, after his bail is denied following his verbal attack of the judge, Clyde appears defeated and subdued. However, it later emerges that his ‘defeat’ was a carefully orchestrated move to lead the authorities into believing that he had accomplices while in fact, he escapes confinement and commits the crimes through tunnels leading to his armory. Towards the end, however, Clyde’s luck runs out after a bomb he had set to explode at City Hall gets transferred to his cell instead, which he detonates and dies while holding on to his late daughter’s bracelet. Despite his failure to escape that last time, the system’s inability to stop him earlier marks his transition through the second thesis in Cohen’s theory.
The third thesis provides that the reason the monster always escapes in the previous thesis is their ability to refuse easy categorization (5). Monsters, therefore, cannot be assigned to specific classifications and defy the typical order of things. In the film, Clyde defies the typical classification of characters into villains and heroes. Though he appears to be the villain, his reasons are purportedly justified. In fact, he is seen earlier in the film begging the prosecuting attorney not to offer the plea bargain deal to Clarence, portraying the image of a law-abiding citizen seeking justice for his family. The film depicts a gray area in its failure to explicitly present Clyde as a villain leaving the decision to the discretion of the viewer.
Fourth, the monster dwells at the gates of difference (7). They are perceived as different and possess aspects considered to be outside of the norm, with opposite beliefs or ideas to those of the majority. Such differences in ideologies, culture, race, and sometimes religion are sometimes represented as monstrous leading to the vilification of those possessing these attributes, sometimes leading to the ‘monsters,’ Frankenstein for instance, seeking out their creators to determine whether they would have been created otherwise (8).In the film, for instance, Clyde deals with the death of his family and the resulting management of the case by the criminal justice system differently. Rather than accept the punishment handed to the culprits or follow up through the appellate courts as is the norm, Clyde chooses to serve the punishment he deems fair himself. He replaces the usual drug administered in executions with an anticonvulsant to ensure that Ames’s death is painful and later murders Darby in an equally painful and gruesome manner. Different officials of the justice system suffer his wrath as well, facing punishments many would consider unconventional. By so doing, Clyde fits the description of a monster based on his approach’s deviation from the norm.
Additionally, Clyde confirms the fifth thesis which considers monsters as warnings against explorations of the unknown (10). While the film exposes a broken justice system, it warns of the consequences of taking the law into one’s hands through Clyde. Though he succeeds in exerting revenge on those he deems responsible for failing get justice for his family, he hurts several innocent people in his quest and in the end loses his own life. He, therefore, serves to warn of the dangers of disregarding the processes set by the justice system in the search for justice confirming Cohen’s fifth thesis.
Cohen further advances the thesis that the society’s fear of the monster is actually admiration and desire (17). The monster, therefore, embodies hidden desires that people cannot express or indulge in which they then attribute to the monster making it possible to play roles they would otherwise not consider acceptable. Clyde’s statement “Darby and Ames deserved to die; I think most people would agree with that” in reference to the death of the men responsible for the loss of his family illustrates this thesis. In a similar situation, most people would harbor similar thoughts, but few would voice theirs out loud as Clyde does, deeming it unacceptable by societal norms and standards. In fact, Rice, the prosecutor applauds Clyde for his role in the deaths of both Ames and Darby and admits that the world is a better place without the two. The terror Clyde inspires in the film is therefore in part admiration for his attack on the justice system and for singlehandedly punishing the men responsible for the death of his family which is in line with the sixth thesis.
Finally, in the last thesis, the monster stands at the threshold of becoming (20). Here, the monster inspires a re-examination of the societal ideologies and beliefs and their basis. Clyde helps advance this thesis albeit indirectly. He inspires introspection and an examination of the role the justice system plays in delivering justice. His perspective opens up some prevalent practices in the system to scrutiny and raises questions of their ethics and morality. That a murderer gets a shorter sentence for serving as a witness for the prosecution, for instance, is one such question.
Law Abiding Citizen is a film which exposes a broken justice system. Clyde, a key character in the film fits the title of a monster based on Cohen’s seven theses. Through his role, he exhibits each of the seven theses and in the end gets the viewer to question the effectiveness of the country’s criminal justice system in delivering justice.
Cohen, Jeffrey. Monster Culture. University Of Minnesota Press, 1996, pp. 1-21.
Gray, F. Law Abiding Citizen. Overture Films, 2009.
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