Author Archives: leariej

“Pulling a Robbery”: Gary Gray’s Use of the Execution Scene Seen in Dead Man Walking

At this time in the U.S., the validity and true fairness of our justice system has become a very controversial topic. For example, with innovative strides made in areas such as DNA testing, people have begun to fight against the death penalty for some death row inmates who may actually be innocent if evidence were tested with this new method.  Another common issue with the justice system is the problem of actually putting those deserving of punishment away instead of those who have not been proven guilty without a reasonable doubt. As the American people have begun to question the judicial system frequently over the years, many directors have made these issues of justice central themes to their own movies. In Tim Robbin’s Dead Man Walking and Gary Gray’s Law-Abiding Citizen, both directors use similar scene set ups and shots for death row inmates in the midst of their executions in order to convey two differing themes. In these two films, directors Tim Robbins and Gary Gray use scenes of death row inmates to convey their themes regarding the controversial aspects of the American justice system.

In Dead Man Walking, Tim Robbins uses this final execution scene to highlight the controversial issues of the Death Penalty for inmates who arguably deserve a second chance or a punishment less harsh. The leading character Matthew Poncelet is a convict rightfully charged with the sexual assault of a teenage girl as well as the murder of her teenage boyfriend. Poncelet consistently denies these charges, claiming he did not kill or rape anyone, until the day of his execution when he emotionally comes to terms with his sin while talking to Sister Helen. As his time to live winds down and he begins to be prepared for execution, the viewer gets a view of Poncelet from Sister Helen’s point of view.

Time Stamp: 2:10

This view of Poncelet delivers an empathetic perception of this convict which the viewer, similar to Sister Helen, has watched grow and change as a person throughout the movie. Poncelet’s face in the scene gives off a feeling of solemn regret and deep sorrow towards the actions he has played a part in to receive such punishment. More importantly, the viewer gets a deep look at the true guilt Poncelet feels for the mistakes he has previously made. This push for empathy from the viewer helps to question the use of the death penalty as punishment for inmates. The movie serves to show that people can change, and Matthew Poncelet’s situation forces the viewer to decide whether a “changed” convict should still receive the severe punishment of death by lethal injection.

In Law-Abiding Citizen, Gary Gray’s scene regarding a man’s execution lightly plays with the topic of wrongly accused persons within the judicial system. In this execution the scene is displayed almost identical to that of Tim Robbin’s ending scene in Dead Man Walking, with the point of view coming from that of the main character, Nick Rice. The difference in this scene is that empathetic feelings toward the man facing execution are relatively nonexistent; the character’s only visible involvement within the story is a brief apprehension while taking part in the robbery and murder of the Shelton family ten years before the execution. His story bares some similar comparisons to Matthew Poncelet’s in Tim Robbin’s film by being part of a crime he did not necessarily want to be involved with. Aside from their stories, this man on the execution table also strikingly resembles the scene in Dead Man Walking.

Time Stamp: 15:24

The man’s face carries the same sorrowful and regretful expression as Poncelet’s, but in this case both the viewer and Nick Rice do not know about the innocence or potential changed emotions of this man. While the man actually did not participate in the murders of the Shelton family, he still finds himself punished by death with no one sympathizing for him. Gary Gray plays with the topic of the death penalty and judicial system by showing members of this justice system’s ability to completely disregard the cruelty of killing a man for questionable charges. The lawyer, Nick Rice, treats this execution as another common day on the job rather than actually looking at the real “rights” and “wrongs” of this present situation, a theme that becomes a bigger focal point as the movie progresses. In the end, Gary Gray’s clever use of Tim Robbin’s death row inmate scene helps to illuminate the opposite, unsympathetic side of the Death Penalty controversy.

 

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The Use of Focalization in Taken

Director Pierre Morel’s Taken is an action movie that fills its audience with a feeling of suspense and thrill different from one’s usual story of a savior or hero. Morel’s story takes a father, Bryan, and puts him in one of the most heartbreaking situations of any father’s life: the kidnapping of his only daughter, Kim. Although Bryan is a former CIA agent still well skilled in his profession throughout the movie, his role as a father leads him to make decisions in hostile situations during the rescue not customary to the usual James Bond-style rescue story. These decisions throughout the movie keep the viewer in suspense as they attempt to predict the father’s next move in potentially climactic moments of the rescue. In Taken, the character conflict between father and agent is highlighted through the use of focalization, placing Bryan in situations where both he and the viewer have a few moments to survey the setting and decide on an action to take.
One situation Bryan finds himself in throughout the movie is his conversation with the men who run the sex trafficking business inside their apartment. He arrives in their kitchen claiming he is Jean-Claude; an officer he has currently found seems to be dealing under the table with these criminals.

Time Stamp:58:28

Continuing this false identity quite smoothly, Bryan gets information about locations of the trafficking sites as well as names of the men leading these businesses. His ability to conceal his own identity while still getting to the details he needs to know to find his daughter highlight his abilities as a former CIA agent and the viewer as well as Bryan find themselves relatively comfortable with the situation at hand. But the hostility of the scene soon rises when one of the men says “good luck” in the same tone as the kidnapper on the phone at the beginning of the movie. At this point of the scene, there are a few seconds where the viewer sees the situation at hand through Bryan’s eyes as he briefly flashes back to the past scene that ties the phrase together. The viewer then does not know what the father will do next: walk away and not reveal his identity in front of the group of armed men, or get revenge on the man who robbed him of his daughter despite the risky circumstances. This veil of uncertainty leaves the decision in the air for even longer as the scene seems to stop for a moment to increase the suspense before Bryan reveals his identity and takes down all the men single-handedly. While this situation for a normal professional agent would probably end with him or her keeping up their fake identity, the father side of the main character took precedence as he made a decision that could have easily ended in his own death.
Another setting within the movie in which Bryan and the viewer find themselves at a point of suspense is in Jean-Claude’s dining room. In this scene, Bryan sits down for dinner with Jean-Claude’s wife and Jean-Claude, who returns from work surprised to see him in his house. As they begin to speak casually at the table, Bryan begins to insert comments with symbolic meanings in the traditional way movies do when there is a third party oblivious to the situation at hand. This third party, being Jean-Claude’s wife, listens on and eventually begins to feel the tensions brewing between the two men. At this point, a CIA agent or professional would most likely try to keep the wife out of the issue by either asking her to leave the room or moving their conversation elsewhere. Instead, the mind of an impatient father with little time decides to bring the matters of Jean-Claude’s secret criminal affairs out into the open in front of his wife. At this point Jean-Claude pulls out a gun that has already been unloaded, and the tension again mounts as the viewer begins to predict Bryan’s next move.

Time Stamp: 1:07:50

He has already put his skills to use by cleverly unloading his enemy’s gun, but now the wrath of a still-daughterless father again influences an important decision. Bryan pulls out his own gun and shoots the wife, an outcome the viewer would have never expected. This spontaneous and untraditional action by a CIA agent serves to keep the viewer loyal to each moment of suspense throughout the movie by showing that no action by this CIA agent will be held to special agent stereotypes; Bryan’s actions must be not just his former profession but his current role as a father as well.

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