I sat down to watch "Law Abiding Citizen" a few weeks ago and I have to admit that I turned the movie off part way through. The film started off somewhat promising as a man's wife and daughter are brutally murdered and the prosecutors in the case make a deal with the most criminally responsible character in order to gain a conviction. The fellow gets a plea deal that puts him back on the street in just a few short years. It seemed like the film had a very strong theme that was going to expose the failings of the criminal justice system.
Why did I turn it off? Groaners. I think it was William Goldman who said that the audience will allow you one groaner - after that you are on your own. The groaner is usually a leap in logic in the story that gets the writer out of a jam and allows him to put the story back on the rails and in the right direction. 'Law Abiding Citizen' went further than this for me as it was becoming abundantly clear that the premise was too unbelievable for me to go on. I see this flaw often when I am teaching. Often the student's script reads fine with good dialogue and characters but they build the story on a weak foundation that doesn't feel plausible. This is often based in poor character motivation where the characters are acting on behalf of the writer and what the writer wants to happen rather than what makes sense for the characters.
(small spoilers ahead)
The first revenge killing in 'Law Abiding Citizen' takes place at the execution of the other man responsible for the murder of the man's wife and child. Our protagonist has rigged the execution chamber to ensure a very brutal death. Plausible? Not to me but ok, go on. Our man then hunts down the other killer and pulls a Dexter on him. The protagonist is arrested and is incarcerated for this revenge murder. While in jail he ends up murdering a fellow inmate - happens... ok. Then the big groan comes and I punch the stop button. The district attorney is meeting with the Judge from the earlier trial when she is shot in the head, with her own cellphone. Our protagonist, while still in jail, has managed to kill the Judge by pre-rigging her cellphone. I have a big laugh and am out. Am I really expected to believe this?
The Suspension of Disbelief.
The suspension of disbelief is a very subjective thing. I'm sure others watched and enjoyed this film but I was taken out of the story by a logic that just wasn't working for me. I can sit through 'Lord of the Rings' or 'Star Wars' and buy into it hook line and sinker but 'Law Abiding Citizen' didn't work. Part of the reason why this didn't work was that the film sets itself up in a very serious tone (as seen in the opening of the trailer). The first ten or twenty minutes made me think that this film was going to work more like a drama than a quasi-horror film. Alas, the film turns into a light version of the Saw films and I just can't buy into it. The tone of the film places the audience in our world and then asks us to buy into this genius plan of murdering all responsible for the violence against this man's family. It's a fine line for the filmmaker to walk in balancing the tone of the film so the audience will give themselves over to the story. This isn't always easy to do. I've just finished writing a script where it weighed heavily on my thinking - will the audience buy into the premise? If they don't, I'm dead in the water before the end of the first reel. How can I be sure if it will work? I can't. The only thing I can do is create a logic for the world I am writing about and follow that logic. The other task is to make sure that the characters are acting on behalf of themselves and not in service of my own agenda for the story. The rest is up to the audience.