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Hermaneutic Code in Law Abiding Citizen

With his use of hermeneutic code in Law Abiding Citizen, director F. Gary Gray draws suspense in a captivating manner.  One definition of hermeneutic code is “those plot elements that raise questions on the part of the viewer of a film.”  So this code entails the director strategically showing significant events occur without giving a clear explanation as to why they occur.  The viewer immediately gets involved, searching for reasoning behind such curious impactful occurrences.  While typically directors tend to evoke suspense by starting off with the “who, what, when, where, and why,” adding influential events along the way, the hermaneutic code more thoroughly suspends the viewer by immersing him into the movie’s action right away and forcing him to discover why any of the 5 Ws are missing.  Law Abiding Citizen begins with the apparent protagonist, Clyde Shelton, receiving a visit from two burglars who murder his family before his eyes.  Once Shelton is placed in jail for murdering one of these men, the viewer questions how the action will proceed with Shelton locked away.  As Shelton continues his attacks on officials while behind bars, however, he adopts a God-like persona in which the viewer and characters around him cannot detect his next move because he holds knowledge that they don’t.  This type of omniscient yet secretive power not only captivates the viewer, but also leads him to question Shelton’s interior motivations and rationale for his actions.

While in jail Shelton effectively manipulates the criminal system, gaining leverage in the prison by systematically murdering numerous officials. These murders shock and appall the viewer, and do so simultaneously to characters like Nick Rice.  By witnessing such horrific, groundless scenes along with Rice, the viewer can easily identify and relate to Rice’s subsequent emotions.  The viewer jolts at the surprise that hits Rice when a bomb erupts.  He feels fear grip him just as it grips Rice.  And he feels the uncertainty and paranoia that envelop Rice while Shelton lives.  This easy access into Rice’s psyche attaches Rice to the viewer and the viewer’s eyes to the movie as he watches events unfold through Rice’s viewpoint.  The clip below portrays a specific instance that evokes these emotions in Rice and the viewer, as Rice unexpectedly witnesses the judge’s head explode.  None of the characters other than Shelton know that the phone will explode, so their genuine astonishment parallels the viewer’s.

(01:02:33) Phone bomb explodes

This fear that Shelton strikes in people resembles the ominous presence that God himself possesses—the God-like comparison only starts here.  Another man, who Rice meets in the subway, exists out of Shelton’s way and only timidly does he come forth with information about Shelton.  He tells Rice that “if [Shelton] wants you dead, you’re dead.”  With this statement the man qualifies Shelton as an all-powerful force whose will is unavoidable, even when behind bars.  He can direct peoples’ fate; they should not try to avoid Shelton’s grasp because he has capabilities and resources that normal humans don’t have.  As the viewer witnesses Shelton exhibit his far-reaching power in his murders, the viewer predicts that he has hired associates to help.  When he finds out later that no man assists Shelton, but rather that he has equipped himself with an extensive military weaponry background, the viewer further questions how one man can retain so much power, and ultimately what motives propel his actions.

His earliest murders carry an obvious motive; vengeance for his family’s death.  The immediately following murders, however, contain more clandestine motives.  While Shelton clearly detests the corrupt officers who man the governmental framework, he begins to kill even those with no involvement in his case. The viewer consequently wonders whether this man has evident logic behind these murders, whether he is insane, or whether he embarks on this rampage out of pure spite.  Later when Shelton reveals his hopes to “bring the temple down,” the viewer concludes that out of spite, Shelton has formulated the logical goal to not only execute the system’s officials, but also to destroy the institution, structures, and ideas that come with the “temple.”  Shelton wants to abolish the whole corrupt thing.  At the end of the movie the viewer sees Rice uncover Shelton’s scheme, and sees Shelton fail to fully perpetuate a God-like persona.  This is where his God-like comparison stops.  In not fully being able to conceal his plan, Shelton allows Rice to discover his secret path and bomb, and he dies–like everyone else–by way of his own device.  Unlike God, he malevolently wields his powers to kill and destroy.  Both his calculating errors and his misuse of power distance him from God.  At the end of the movie, Gray depicts Hell-like flames envelop Shelton, who’s sinful deeds and imperfection perhaps place him closer to Satan than to God.

(01:39:40) Shelton's cell blows up

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Power Dynamics and Focalization in In a Better World

In In a Better World, the director places the viewer into the characters’ positions through his use of focalization. Most notably, the viewer finds himself watching events take place through the eyes of Christian and Elias. Their viewpoints atop the silo represent their struggle for power—as the viewer looks down at the ground, watching Christian and Elias’s potential victims scurry around unknowingly like ants, he relates himself to these boys as they formulate their plans. On the silo they are free; they can escape reality, evading the limitations of authority while somehow maintaining control and power over the peoples’ lives below them.

Timestamp 00:25:14


These unaware, powerless people contrast the people who attempt to control and dominate Elias and Christian when not on the silo. Once level with the rest of society, these boys see their power diminish. They face relentless victimization from the school bully while witnessing the school system simply ignore and neglect to resolve it. Even their lives at home entail disorder, as Christian deals with the thought that his father supported his mother’s death and Elias struggles to find a hero in his unfaithful and often unavailable father. To add to their turbulent relations with their fathers, their respective parents’ separation from each other further worries the boys. In a world in which evil and corrupt authority figures create turmoil, the boys retreat to the “better world” on the silo. Here they begin to seek stability that, according to them, can be effectively brought about by amassing power.

Behind their parents’ backs, they construct plans to gain power over people who have wronged them and thus have power over them. Christian first attempts to gain power over the school bully by beating him with a bicycle pump and holding a knife to his throat. Christian and his power-hungry tendencies serve as a foil to Elias and his submissive nature, and Christian thinks Elias is weak for not initially wanting to blow up a van. Christian sees this weakness in Elias translate to Elias’s father, Anton, who gets slapped by another man in front of the boys. While Anton preaches to his children that the man’s assaults do not hurt and that the other man lost, Christian claims that he “does not [think] he lost,” signifying Christian’s stance that Anton is the weaker man.

Christian detests this weakness and plans to gain revenge and power by blowing up the man’s van. The viewer then wonders who actually has more power; Anton or the boys? Anton, who holds that “violence only creates more violence,” assumes a Jesus-like role in the movie and combats Christian’s perception of “power.” Perhaps he is not nearly as weak as Christian thinks. Like Jesus, Anton turns his cheek when hit rather than fights back. Also like Jesus, Anton saves numerous lives in S Africa and ultimately saves Christian’s. The director’s choice to highlight Anton’s cross tattoo on his side while he floats on his back in the lake (like Jesus, suspended on the water) furthers this similarity between him and Jesus.

At the end of the story, the movie viewer sees through Christian’s eyes again as he attempts to gain power over his own life in contemplating suicide from the top of the silo. While Christian’s clueless father tries to determine his whereabouts, Anton recognizes the silo made of legos and immediately goes to save Christian. By utilizing focalization here, the director heightens suspense and draws sympathy for Christian as the viewer looks far below at the distant ground.

Timestamp 1:04:19

In this scene we see Christian’s helplessness and Anton’s actual possession of the power the boys strive for. Finally, as Elias returns to physical health, his parents’ relationship too regains health and stability.

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