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Clyde’s Shelton’s Final Repose: Law Abiding Citizen & Deconstructing The Dark Knight…

I had a chance to watch Law Abiding Citizen over the weekend, and I kinda liked it. I found some problems with the way that it handled its philosophical points about the balance between the justice system and the chaos that it attempts to regulate, but it was an enjoyable little thriller. However, while watching the film, I couldn’t help but feel that the movie had more than a passing similarity to the other thriller that explored how the criminal justice system could withstand a sustained assault on its basic foundations from a lone and psychotic terrorist. In short, it reminded me of The Dark Knight, but with an interesting twist or two. In particular, F. Gary Gray’s movie feels a bit like what might have developed had somebody removed the character of Batman from Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster in pre-production.

"I'm gonna pull the whole thing down. I'm gonna bring the whole f&%@in' diseased, corrupt temple down on your head. It's gonna be biblical."

Note: This article includes spoilers for both films.

There are obvious superficial similarities between the films. Nolan’s Gotham (filmed in Chicago) looks quite like Philadelphia, and F. Gary Gray has a fondness for the types of elegant establishing shots that helped to lend Nolan’s movie a sense of scale. The soundtrack evokes quite a bit of Hans Zimmer’s moody score, and both movies feature a prosecutor – in fact, in both movies, the District Attorney – in a fairly major role. However, there are more than a few key similarities between the two projects, which makes for an interesting comparison between the two films.

I noted above that Law Abiding Citizen really feels like it’s just missing Batman. It has a character comparable to Harvey Dent in Nick Rice, and Clyde Shelton bares more than a passing resemblance to the Joker in means and motives. Of course, Batman is the third part of any number of complex equations at the heart of The Dark Knight, so the movie would have looked quite different without him. I’d argue that it would look a lot like Law Abiding Citizen. Without an ambiguously heroic figure outside the system, you lose a lot of the moral ambiguity and complexity – after all, it’s Batman who must try to balance the order that the police represent and the chaos that the Joker brings to Gotham.

"You want me? Here I am."

In fact, though I doubt it’s intentional, Law Abiding Citizen seems to play with the idea of a comic book supervillain, just without a hero in opposition. In many ways, Clyde feels like a stand-in for Heath Ledger’s Joker. Both are “agents of chaos” who manage to bring the whole system of law and order in a major city crashing down. Clyde is actually described as “a jailed psychopath who has managed to bring this city to its knees.” Although Clyde has a much firmer back story than the Joker, with his dead wife and child, the movie implies that Clyde isn’t acting out of any sense of obligation to them, but is using them as an excuse for his violence – much like the Joker concocts stories that allow him to seem like a sympathetic victim. Indeed, both men are mysteries to the law enforcement community – the Joker has no identity outside his persona, while Clyde has “missing years” and an asset book that the authorities can’t get ahold of.

Clyde’s fixation on Nick could be said to mirror the Joker’s fixation on Batman. “I don’t want to kill you,” the Joker declared of Batman, and Clyde repeatedly spares Nick while targeting those around him (his car is clean, and he is isolated from the carnage at the funeral). However, I’d suggest that – since Law Abiding Citizen feels like The Dark Knight without Batman – Clyde’s fascination with the prosecutor is more like the Joker’s obsession with Dent. Clyde isn’t interested in Nick Rice as a man, beyond the fact that he interacted with Nick as the face of the system a decade earlier. He’s interested in Nick as an institution, the “white knight”, a fast-rising prosecutor and next-in-line to the office of District Attorney.

"He's in jail, it's because he wants to be in jail. He's a born tactician. Every move that he makes, it means something."

Clyde is treating Nick as an incorruptible avatar of the justice system, and one that he wants to pull down to his level. He boasts about wanting to bring down “the temple”, and Nick is just a tool to do that, as he tries to goad Nick into breaking the law to stop him. It’s very similar to the way that the Joker tries to break Dent’s faith in the justice system, to bring him down to the villain’s level. Indeed, as the final moments of the movie demonstrate, Clyde does ultimately succeed in corrupting Nick, as the Joker succeeds with Dent. The very fact that the villains win an ideological victory is a major similarity among two big-budget Hollywood blockbusters.

There are quite a few other similarities between their methodologies. Much like the Joker’s terrorist campaign against Gotham, Clyde’s wave of violence targets the DA, kills a judge and attempts to assassinate the city’s mayor as symbols of a system that he feels needs dismantling – in fact, Clyde impersonates an employee (a janitor) to target the mayor, just as the Joker wears a police uniform in his attempt on Gotham’s mayor. The methodology of both characters is the same – relying on incredible planning, and prone to break down if there are any last-minute deviations from the plans they’ve made. Clyde also has a preference for gadgets and gizmos (including an EMP cannon), which arguably makes him more of a supervillain than Nolan’s Joker (who really only puts a bomb inside a fat man).

"... some men just want to see the world burn..."

“All I’m saying is, assume this guy can hear and see everything,” we’re told of Clyde, which puts him in a heavier weight-class than most mainstream thriller bad guys. He’s shown to be a master at forward-planning, capable of pulling off these almost impossible assassinations, which must have involved a near-ridiculous level of planning. It’s the type of large-scale and near-omnipotent villainry that you really only see in comic book films, rather than more conventional blockbuster fare. “He’s a born tactician. Every move that he makes, it means something.”

And, in fairness to Law Abiding Citizen, it also picks apart the idea of a supervillain quite well, which is where it begins to distinguish itself thematically from The Dark Knight. Without the heavy back story and a long legacy of appearances in other media to support him, Clyde is finally put out of his misery by Nick, rather than the Joker, who manages to avoid being killed by either Batman or the police. Clyde simply pushes his victim too far, although he seems at peace in death – apparently because he has his daughter’s bracelet, but I’d also suggest because it represents a moral victory that the Joker will never have. (Because Batman will never kill him.)

"ln my experience, Nick, lessons not learned in blood are soon forgotten."

In fact, Clyde’s whole evil supervillain plan ultimately comes crashing down around his ears. He pulls off some impressive hits, but it turns out that his network isn’t quite as impregnable as he would have thought. The cops aren’t as blinded by the paperwork as he intended, and good old-fashioned detective work (rather than a dramatic confrontation and fisticuffs) follows the paper back to his warehouse, pulling at the string. When it all comes to light, Clyde doesn’t face a major physical or ideological challenge, but is only addressed by Nick after the prosecutor has “cheated” and assured victory (by planting the bomb in his cell).

In essence, in this movie, the supervillain dies because the superhero isn’t around to play a game using their own unspoken roles – the irony, of course being that Clyde and the Joker both win and lose, but in different ways. The Joker wins because he gets to keep playing, but loses because Batman will never compromise. Clyde loses because he dies, but wins because Nick compromises. I find that an interesting point of comparison between the two – I think Law Abiding Citizen takes a lot of the same basic principles and plays them off against two players (Clyde and Nick), while The Dark Knight instead pits the concepts against three (the Joker, Batman, Dent). As such, I’d argue that Nolan’s film has a lot more depth and complexity to it, while Law Abiding Citizen feels more like a game of ideological ping-pong.

"It's all part of the plan..."

Still, it’s probably something that’s entirely random, and something I’ve only really noticed because I’m a major nerd. It’s probably not something that anybody would notice unless you really pointed it out, and – even then – they’d probably have to squint a bit to see it. Still, I can’t help but see it, and it marks an interesting way of looking at both films.

5 Responses

  1. Excellent post as usual. I’ve never noticed this before, and I doubt many people have.

  2. OMG! Finally someone would agree with me, to some degree at least. Clyde’s goal is forcing Nick’s hands into stopping himself AT ANY COST, i.e. breaking the rules to save the innocent. For the whole movie, he tries to achieve that by escalating the level of stress and harm inflicted to Nick, killing his client, colleagues, boss, friends. Think about it: what do you think would be next if Clyde succeeded in blowing up the mayor and still was not put down? Hmm?

    Clyde’s methods might be as extreme as Joker, yet the two are different on so many levels. I would argue that he have much more in common with the Batman than Joker. When asked about how his deceased family would feel about his murder spree, Clyde rejected the question saying that the dead could not feel. The way he says it is in deep agony. But contrary to what he says, he has let his family “watch” as he executes and tortures the first victim. He does believe that his methods are cruel and disgusting, yet necessary.

    “This isn’t about revenge” as he claims. While Joker makes Harvey into Two-Faces, Clyde is trying to make his white knight into a dark knight. Think about this for a second: what Batman does is to fight crime and evil. And he does so using violence. He is regarded an outlaw vigilante. He is beyond most laws that restrain a common “law-abiding citizen” and his only rule is that he does no kill. But he would not stop the villains from dying, not every time. How Clyde “defeated” Nick was essentially in the very same way Bruce finished Ra’s al Ghul in Batman Begins. Yes, the villains deaths are their own doing, yet the protagonists refuse to save them, even when they could! And both villains have lost their abilities to commit crime at this point! So why even kill them? You could easily build 2nd degree murder cases against Batman and Nick! Yet they both act in good faith of the people they are trying to protect.

    Furthermore, remember that Nick is a prosecutor. He IS part of the legal system. What he does in the last scene with Clyde is acting prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner in unison, in total abandonment of his former belief in procedural justice. And he does so without any regrets or consequences. “Some man just wanna see the world burn”. And they must be stopped at any costs, here and now. That, my friend, is the lesson Clyde tries to teach. “Do not bargain with a criminal” is just an appetizer before the main course. Promoting Nick to DA might just be the hint that viewers need to decipher that message.

    Nick finally understands that in the end, and he even excelled his teacher’s before the last teaching. That is why Clyde laughs, not only because he is outsmarted by Nick, but also that Nick goes beyond his expectation. The Padawan has grasped the most important lesson now. And he shall carry on as the Master.

    Now, in the end of the movie Nick watches the concert of his daughter. He gets to stay with his family. That, is his price from the class. Think about it: what do you think would be next if Clyde succeeded in blowing up the mayor and still was not put down? Hmm?

  3. Great analysis. I saw the similarities once Nick was rushing to City Hall and then it hit me this is just like the Dark Knight and I said to myself, “Someone else must have noticed.” It made me seek your post out.

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