The premise of Justice (or Seeking Justice, as it is named in the States) is not fundamentally unworkable. The basic plot seems almost like an affectionate homage to Hitchcock, with people essentially trading motivations for murder, with a mysterious organisation (known as “the Organisation”) offering people a chance for revenge against the person who hurt them – but with a caveat. If they do you a favour, you will have to do them a favour later on. It’s not a bad premise for a revenge thriller, but the problem with Justiceis that it takes itself far too serious, and expects us to do the same. What could have been a cheesy-yet-enjoyable thriller becomes an overly long and self-important waste of time.
The premise is at least a little bit compelling, feeling like a far more organised take on Strangers on a Train – you swap murder victims to disguise motive and to impair police investigations. When a rapist is confronted by an armed intruder asking about the woman he attacked, he wonders if that was the guy’s wife. “Not my wife,” the guy holding the gun responds. “My wife was murdered three months ago by some scumbag like you.” There is something at least a little bit interesting there – about how revenge and violence are interlinked, and how such things pass from person to person in society. Unfortunately, it’s never quite developed.
The nebulously sinister “Organisation” here seems to have drawn a lot of inspiration from Hitchcock, but only a much larger scale. More than person-to-person interactions, the group organises into “cells” all conspiring to disable security cameras or to pass notes. It’s not quite clear if “the Organisation” is confined to New Orleans, the city featured in the film, but it is certainly implied that they have infiltrated every level of their infrastructure from police officers to doctors to reporters.
We first encounter the group when Will Gerard’s wife is raped and beaten. A character named Simon (played by Guy Pearce) shows up and makes a vaguely sinister offer. “I represent an organisation that deals with people like the man who raped your wife,” he explains. “This wouldn’t cost you anything, financially. But we may ask a favor of you at some point in the future.” At this point, anybody with a hint of common sense would thank Simon for his time before he vanished into a cloud of sulphur laughing manically. Naturally, Will is in a very dark place, and so makes the deal with the devil. Which couldn’t be communicated less subtly if the movie rendered some CGI horns on Guy Pearce’s forehead.
Now, at this point you suspect the movie might be about to indulge in some pulpy trash. After all, revenge thrillers are very tough to present in a way that doesn’t evoke the exploitation genre of the seventies. The moral is inevitably that revenge is not necessarily the wisest or healthiest cause of action, so the character arc in such films feels fairly generic and pedestrian. We know from the moment Simon appears that Will is going to regret even considering his sinister offer.
Such simplistic morality plays can be painful if played entirely straight, but can be salvaged by just a hint of wit or self-awareness. Something to let the audience know that you know they’ve seen this sort of stuff before, and that you know how simplistic the idea is. Something that injects a bit of life into the film. There seems to be a moment or two when the script plays with the idea. Most notably, in the way that Will accepts the offer from Simon. This isn’t a sinister secret society that accepts a simple “yes” answer. Such a thing would be too obvious.
Instead, Will is directed to go to the hospital cafeteria. “Buy a ‘Forever’ bar,” Simon informs him. “Buy two of them.” The movie has just associated Will’s decision to order two candy bars with the decision to order a hit on the man who raped his wife. As far as signals go, it’s perhaps one of the most ridiculous ways of communicating agreement I have ever seen. Later on, arranging a meeting, Simon directs Will through a small shop. “I want you to buy some gum and come out the back entrance.” Simon doesn’t even seem to wantthe gum. Perhaps Simon just owns stock in the candy company. The only other possibility is that the movie has a sense of humour, and the evidence doesn’t bare that out.
After all, the film stars Nicolas Cage as a teacher desperately trying to reach his young students, who don’t want to be educated. He tries to convince them of the virtues of Shakespeare. “He’s using words to create emotions,” he explains, patronisingly. Indeed, the movie is remarkably po-faced throughout its runtime, with nobody willing to acknowledge how absurd it all is. When Will is given a codeword to communicate his agreement, he’s curious about why that phrase was chosen. “‘The Hungry Rabbit Jumps’?” Will repeats. “What does it mean?” Simon responds, “It means what it means.” Of course, we eventually get an explanation and it is as dull and as serious as one might imagine.
Everything in the film is so dour, so serious. It’s an inherently ridiculous premise, one taken to absurdity by a script that delivers its exposition and back story in the most straight-faced manner possible. There is one moment where it seems the script is in on the ridiculousness of its set-up, as Will turns the tables of Simon, delivering his own commands over the phone. His dictates include “take a leak” and “go to the hot dog stand and buy yourself a hotdog.” Simon wryly asks, “Having fun?” If only somebody were. Sadly, there’s not so much as a “Simon says”gag in the whole thing.
To be fair, Guy Pearce seems to be having a tiny bit of fun. It’s not enough to even nearly salvage the film, but there’s something delightfully trashy about his bald-headed man of mystery, wearing a sleazy silver chain around his neck. Meeting Will for the first time after his “favour”, he’s deliciously sleazy. “You’re lookin’ good,” he comments, resisting the urge to do the pointy finger gesture, “so’s your wife.” Of course, this just makes Will look like a bigger idiot for ever trusting this obviously sleazy character, but at least Pearce relishes the trashy nature of his role.
Most of the rest of the cast plays it quite stoic. Nicolas Cage is buttoned down here, which is a shame. One sense that the movie might have been a bit more fun had Will been allowed to come off the rails at least once, or maybe twice. January Jones barely registers in an underwritten part. Harold Perrineau and Jennifer Carpenter don’t ever really stand out from the scenery. Only Xander Berkley seems to be having as much fun as Pearce, playing a delightfully Southern law enforcement officer in a relatively small role.
I find it interesting that so many of the films shooting in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina have either ignored the city completely (like Green Lantern, using it as a backdrop for the fictional Coast City) or presented it as a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Of course, the productions are only there for the tax breaks, but Justice seems to revel in portraying New Orleans as the absolute worst place imaginable.
It’s unclear if “the Organisation” operates outside the city, but they seem to justify their existence pretty well within it. Every character seems to despise the city, and it’s suggested that “the Organisation” is necessary to keep the criminals in check in the city. More than crime though, it seems like the city is decaying from within. Taking Will to an abandoned mall, Simon wonders aloud, “Can you believe they haven’t fixed this place up, all these years after the hurricane?”
Later on, Will asks about the cover-up of a murder within the city, asking if that is how it is going to be. He is told, quite simply, “This is New Orleans… of course that’s how it’s gonna be.” I know that the filming provides jobs and infra-structure, but I can’t help but feel if it might be worth seeing a high-profile project presenting the city in an optimistic light. As it stands, Justice seems to present a version of New Orleans that seems more fundamentally broken and hopeless than any version of Gotham City.
Justice is a disappointing film, one that feels like it takes itself far too seriously for its own good. A sinister conspiracy infiltrating the highest levels of city infrastructure to run a secret revenge cult should at least be trashy and pulpy fun. Unfortunately, it’s just trash.
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