“It’s not what you know, it’s what you can prove in court”. (Law Abiding Citizen 2009).
This report will critically evaluate the representation of fictional violent offending in the film ‘Law Abiding Citizen’, through the use of academic literature, research on the extent and nature of this violent offending as well as theoretical explanations of violent crime. In particular this report will explore the violent path of the main character Clyde Shelton. This source will be discussed with the theories of masculinity, mental health, situational theory, as well as the use of the techniques of neutralisation. The definition of violence that will be used in this report is a narrow definition that violence is ‘the intentional encroachment upon a person’s physical integrity’ (Spierenburg 2009, p13). This narrow definition has been used due to the majority of violence ending in murder.
Law abiding Citizen is a fictional film that takes place in the late 2000s in the USA. The film follows the progression of violence of Clyde Shelton who falls victim to a house break in which results in the death of his wife and child. Clyde then goes on to have the two perpetrators prosecuted only to find that the perpetrator that was responsible for the murder of his family made a plea bargain that was agreed to by Clyde’s attorney so only serves jail time where the lesser perpetrator is sentenced to death. The grief of losing his family and the betrayal of his attorney which Clyde considers as a miscarriage of justice leads him into a spiral of violence 10 years later to avenge his family and to right what he believes is wrong with the judiciary system. (see appendix 1).
This film falls into the same category of many others in which it is a crime thriller and is designed to be entertaining rather than factual, although it brings in elements of the US criminal justice proceedings it does not by any means represent the actual statistics. This is not surprising as crime and psychological thrillers are very popular across the western world with around one-quarter to one-third of books and around half of films falling into this category (Newburn, 2013, p87). This large over representation of crime in the media is also found in sources such as prime time television on which up to one-quarter is dedicated to crime (Newburn, 2013, p87).
Assessment of media source
The source shows the work of a revenge murderer (also known as reverse victim) which Polk (1994 p101) defines as a phenomenon in which the initial victim exchanges roles and becomes the offender. In order to understand revenge murder, revenge has been defined as a powerful psychological phenomenon, there are instances where it may be to enact the justice required by the initial victim in order to gain the psychological peace needed to heal and move forward (Grobbink, Derksen, Marle, 2015). It is important to note the difference between revenge and retaliation. Retaliation holds the concept of an eye for an eye in which the retaliation is the same level of harm inflicted as the original pain experienced, it is a regulated form of revenge (Grobbink, Derksen, Marle, 2015). On the other hand, there is revenge in which it is more concerned with the need to alleviate or remove the psychological feeling of pain held by the victim and is unregulated in scope. This media portrayal of a revenge murderer is that of enacting a series of murders in highly sensationalised methods to be high action and particularly technical in method for example the scene in which the offender Aaims is receiving the lethal injection which is designed to be painless, however was tampered with in order for the chemicals to burn within Aaims system causing an excruciating death. The media source suggests that revenge murder can be accounted for through civilians enacting vigilante justice, however Polk found that the majority of reverse victims were offenders killed by the police while making an arrest in 11 of the 18 cases he reviewed which is around 61% of the time within his cohort (Polk 1994 p102).
Although Law Abiding Citizen does not specifically say when it is set, due to it being released in 2009 this report will be using statistics from 2009. When looking at the crime records of the US in the time in which this film is set it is clear that although entertaining it is an exaggeration of the truth. The film suggests that the crime of revenge murder happens far more frequently than it does in true statistics, using statistics from the FBI the total amount of homicides that happened across the USA in 2009 was 13,636 with the majority of homicides are perpetrated by someone the victim knows, according to recorded data of homicides there were 2941 perpetrated by an acquaintance in which the main character Clyde would fall into for the most of his victims (FBI 2010). With the circumstances of murder being recorded into different categories and although there is not a specific category for revenge murder it is possible that incidents of this nature would make up a percentage of the category of ‘other arguments’ which out of the 13,636 homicides contributed 3334 deaths overall and when cross referenced with the perpetrator being an acquaintance this amounted to 1052 deaths in 2009 across the US which equates to around 7.71% deaths (FBI 2010 – Expanded Homicide Data Table 12).
The representation of the nature of the offender is that of a calculated tactician, it portrays the offender Clyde as intelligent and strategic, giving him an ex-special operative used within the CIA, with a specialty in low impact kinetic operations, he dealt in advanced and secretive assassinations. Although this is highly sensationalised for the purposes of entertainment when this is compared with studies that explore the links between offenders and IQ it can be seen that this is not representative of the majority of statistics. The IQ parameters set is that between 90 and 109 is the average IQ, in the cohort studied it is apparent that the average IQ is lower than that of the general population of non-offenders, in regard to those who were convicted of homicide only 8.3% scored above average in the verbal testing and 36.66% scoring above average in the non-verbal testing with the rest predominantly falling into average intelligence and below (Jovanovic, Novakovic, Salamadi?, Petrovic, Maric, 2012). The media source also portrays murder as a crime in which there are years of premeditation, however looking at the studies the majority of homicides are more linked with emotional disputes and spur of the moment decisions, this emotional response can lead to less self-control and more impulsivity which can result in violence (Salfati, 2003).
The theoretical explanation that will be discussed is the role of masculinity in violent offending. Masculinity is often discussed in terms of being hegemonic, which Messercschmidt (1993) explains that men aim to be the most dominant masculinity that being hegemonic masculinity, which emphasises the importance of authority, aggressiveness and the capacity for violence (Jones 2000). It is also believed that hegemonic masculinity demonstrates to peers’ control and aggressiveness to gain masculine validation (Larry, 2011 p89). It can be seen that the character of Clyde often asserts his dominance upon the other characters through his use of violence, in particular the scene in which he tortures Darby not only is he physically tortured by also psychology as Clyde explains what each tool he brought is for in Darby’s harm and the use of an overhead mirror so Darby must watch as he is cut apart limb by limb, which is later revealed that Darby’s body is found cut into 25 pieces. Clyde’s masculinity can also be seen through his use of control of all the other characters, even when confined in prison he is still orchestrating the characters to abide by his will. This forceful exertion of masculinity could be due to his victimization, the theory of primary and secondary victimisation is the belief that not only has an individual been victimised by the event of crime itself but then goes on to be secondly victimised by their experience in the criminal justice system (Newburn 2013 p370). Clyde was victimised twice, the primary victimisation was Clyde being a witness to his family’s murder, at which point he was overpowered and demasculinized as he was incapacitated and could not protect his family, then he was secondly victimized through his experience with his lawyer’s plea deal with Darby. This violent masculinity could also link with Merton’s Strain theory which was originally applied to the American Dream lifestyle however can be applied to the character of Clyde. Strain theory developed by Merton is the idea that everyone strives for the same goal, however there are the effects of social structure which mean that not everyone had the same legitimate opportunities (Bernard, Snipes, Gerould, 2010 p157). This could apply to the character Clyde as he could not achieve justice for his family through conventional means so instead innovated with illegitimate means to achieve his goal which in this case was through the illegitimate means of violence.
Another theoretical explanation that factors into violent behaviour of the character Clyde is that of mental health. Although it is not discussed within the media source as to whether Clyde has any mental health issues it could to an extent be assumed that due to the trauma that Clyde suffered through witnessing his wife be raped and murdered as well as the murder of his daughter that he would as a result suffer some form of ill health. Hare 1996 defines a psychopath as an individual that can use ‘charm, manipulation, intimidation and violence to control others and to satisfy their own selfish needs. Lacking in conscience and in feelings for others’ (Jones 2000, p42). This definition aligns along with characteristics of Clyde. It also matches with statistics as it is shown that there is a link between mental illness within prison population, whether mental health is a contributing factor into why crime is initially committed or whether mental illness is due to being within prison is a topic often debated, however there is literature explaining the extent of mental illness within prison. Studies show that mental illness is over represented within the prison population in the US as 26% of male prisoners were diagnosed with mental illness (Reingle Gonzalez, Connell, 2014). Another study found that at least 1 in 6 prisoners have a serious mental illness and that there are 3 times the amount of the mentally ill in prison than there are in mental health hospitals (Davies, 2003). Again, this shows the large over representation of those who are mentally ill that are within the criminal justice system.
Situational action theory has a focus more on the micro-environment and less of the macro-environment. It applies more focus on to how the perpetrator and the victim interact in the environment the incident happens. This theory asks the questions of why this victim? Why here? Why now? (Collins, 2009). Athens (1997) breaks down the interpretations of situations into four categories: physical defence – in which the victim was perceived to be initiating the attack on the perpetrator; frustrative – in which the victim does unintentionally provoke the perpetrator into attacking; malefic – in which the victim intentionally provokes or belittles the perpetrator; and finally frustrative-malefic – which is a mixture of the previous two. These categories can fall into the heading of victim precipitation which is the notion that the victim is the first to make a move in violent confrontations it does, however, carry connotations of victim blaming, it separates victims unfairly into two distinctive groups, the helpless and the blameworthy (Jones, 2000). The helpless are those that are elderly or children who cannot be seen as able to protect themselves, while the other group the blameworthy are seen as deserving of their victimisation (Jones, 2000). This can be seen in the media source as there are victims like Clyde’s daughter the viewer feels sympathy for, on the other hand the victimisation of Darby or the judge is met with more with the idea that ‘they deserved it’. This victim precipitation links with Sykes and Matza’s techniques of neutralisation that can be seen employed throughout by the character of Clyde. There are 5 techniques of neutralisation; the denial of victim, the denial of injury, the denial of responsibility, appealing to higher loyalties, and finally the condemnation of condemners (Newburn, 2013). Not only does Clyde use these techniques to justify what he has done but it could argue that it also allows the viewer to justify his actions. Denial of victim the media source creates the illusion that some of his victims deserved to die either through imagery or through dialogue for example Darby’s murder is often stated by the character as a justified action. Denial of responsibility Clyde often states that it was his Lawyer Nick that forced Clyde into enacting his vigilante justice in order to show how corrupt he had become. His appealing to higher loyalties could be seen through his need to right the wrongs of his wife and child’s murder. Condemnation of condemners is done through Clyde’s belief that the entire criminal justice system is crooked, based on statistics and rules rather than on the truth. The only techniques Clyde does not use is that of denial of injury, and that may be because he knows exactly the chaos and pain in which he is inflicting, and this may link into the possibility of his psychopathy in which he enjoys the pain inflicted due to him truly believing that his victims deserve it.
In conclusion this report has critically evaluated the representation of violent crime within the film Law Abiding Citizen (2009), with a specific focus on the violent nature of the character Clyde Shelton. Using Spierenburg’ s definition of violence and literature on the theories of masculinity, mental health, situational theory as well as the mention of the techniques of neutralisation. This media source is designed to be action packed and entertaining rather than factual so there are distortions of the truth, this can be seen through the large exaggerations of the truth when it comes to the statistics of homicide in specific regard to revenge homicide as the majority of reverse victims are that of those being fatally wounded when being arrested. This distortion of the truth is not surprising as the mass media consumes crime whether that be fact or fiction at an over representative rate. This distortion can also be seen through the portrayal of the character Clyde as an incredibly intelligent when in reality studies show that the majority of offenders are either of average IQ or below. It also depicts murder as a crime that is thoroughly planned and premeditated when studies show that it is mostly perpetrated by an escalation of emotion that leads to an impulsive decision that proves fatal. There are statistics used to explain the phenomena of revenge murder and acquaintance murder.
The theories of masculinity are discussed in relation to the emphasis on aggressive, authorative and violent behaviour that society holds as hegemonic masculinity in action. As well as the theories of mental health in relation to prisoner numbers and the possibility of Clyde having psychopathic tendencies. Finally, situational action theory was discussed in relation to techniques of neutralisation in order to gain a better understanding of the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim and how often the line between them is blurred. The strongest argument for the character Clyde’s violence could be argued to be the role of masculinity in which due to his lack of power in the criminal justice system and the original attack that left him de-masculinised, he instead chose to exert his masculinity through dominance, control and violence in order to achieve his goal of justice.
Therefore, this report has highlighted that the representations of violence portrayed through the character of Clyde Shelton in the film Law Abiding Citizen does not give a balanced nor accurate representation of reality.
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