Friday, May 25, 2007

Let's Finish It - in praise of Se7en

'Become Wrath' - John Doe
obviously, this review contains many spoilers

‘Its bleak climax is much too hard on viewers, depriving them even of the final comfort they fully deserve;’ this was Barry Norman’s indignant criticism of the brutally perfect conclusion to Se7en, a film that belongs as much to its writer Andrew Kevin Walker, as it does to David Fincher.

If you haven’t seen Se7en, the premise sounds pretty hackneyed. Rational, reserved and soon-to-be retired black cop joins forces with cocky, impulsive, confrontational white cop for the seven-day handover. So far, so Lethal Weapon. Then uh-oh, some crazy serial killer appears to be murdering people using the seven deadly sins for inspiration. Cue predictable close-ups on black cop painstakingly rooting through Chaucer, Dante and Milton to the strains of Air on a G String, scary neon crucifixes in serial killer’s bedroom, Nine Inch Nails opening credits and plenty of blood. It’s very dark in Fincher’s LA, and it is always raining. Everybody lives in white, cream, black, brown and ochre, and everyday is made up of dawn, dusk and night. Even with the beautifully sombre, vaguely underground Fincher touch, Se7en could be just another cop/serial killer blood-letting, and had we been served the ending favoured by the studio, that’s exactly what it would have been. Imagine it: Morgan Freeman’s Somerset and Brad Pitts’ Mills in a race-against-time dash to save the angelic Tracy (played by an admittedly radiant Gwyneth Paltrow) from the deranged clutches of the extraordinarily ordinary psycho, Kevin Spacey. Big shoot out, the blonde is saved, Freeman takes a bullet for Mills, the bad guy dies, the good will out. But as we all know, thankfully, this is not what happens.

Se7en’s central conceit is simple. Seven deadly sins forming the basis for seven murders, taking place over seven days. These seven days happen to coincide with the seven-day crossover period in the careers of Somerset (Freeman) and Mills (Pitt).

As the mellow, older, wiser cop, Freeman exudes his trademark integrity and control. Morgan “Shawshank” Freeman provides our moral and intellectual compass for the film, imposing order on a chaotic and sinful LA as he sets the rhythmic ticking of the metronome by his bedside, starting the film’s countdown to its bleak ending. The unsettling (ok, slightly clichéd) thing about Se7en is how close John Doe (Kevin Spacey) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) really are. Take this excerpt from Doe’s justification of his own special way of carrying out the good Lord’s work;

Only in a world this shitty could you even try to say these were innocent people and keep a straight face. But that’s the point. We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every house, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it’s common, it’s trivial, we tolerate it morning, noon and night.

There’s only one other point in the film where this issue is raised, and that’s in Somerset’s discussion with Mills on the infection of apathy. In both cases, Mills argues for the innocence of Doe’s victims, defending a society where apathy reigns. Significantly, in not recognising and tackling his predilection for sin, it is Mills who completes Doe’s great plan by becoming Wrath.

The first time we see Pitt in the film, he is every inch the twitchy, smirking upstart, rolling gum around in his mouth, speaking in his impatient staccato. And yet, he is also wise-cracking Mr Cool – he’s Brad Pitt, Mr Gorgeous, our screen hero - and so you forgive him, perhaps more than you should, leaving Morgan Freeman to come across as Mr Uptight, Mr Smug. It’s a great set-up for the film’s fire and brimstone ending.

While Se7en delivers the complete closure found in the discovery and capture of the crime and criminal, satisfying our expectations of a traditional cop/serial killer thriller, it simultaneously rids us of our box office star, murdering the only symbol of good in the film (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the one hope the film offers – her unborn baby.

When Doe leads Somerset and Mills to the two remaining victims out in the desert, we as viewers are willing the protagonists to the scene of these two deaths. It is the seventh hour, of the seventh day in a film called Se7en, centred round murders motivated by the seven deadly sins. Failure to deliver seven bodies would lead to a failure in the narrative’s structure. We are gagging for the discovery of these two bodies, and therefore become co-conspirators in Doe’s plan.

Andrew Kevin Walker intensifies our need for such a tidy completion by teasing us with so many red herrings in the plot. The discovery of the ‘Help Me’ message behind the painting in the scene of the Greed murder leads both us and the detectives to interpret the message as a cry from help from the killer. The only traditionally heroic act of the police - storming a building, guns at the ready - is given to us in the middle of the film with the discovery of the Sloth victim. The shock of learning that the ‘Help Me’ message comes from the severed fingertips of the victim, not the perpetrator of the crime, teamed with the grotesque and alarming realization that the Sloth victim is alive, is both energizing and disconcerting.

We are also, however, slightly comforted by the fact that the murderer has not been discovered so early into the script. After all, we are only at the scene of the third sin – to have stopped the serial killer so swiftly would be cheating us of the price of our admission ticket. Similarly, despite the fact that Mills and Somerset track Doe down to his apartment halfway through the film, we are not permitted to see Kevin Spacey until after Lust and Pride have been discovered. It is also probably worth noting that, when commenting on the film, the natural thing to do when speaking of the crimes is to refer to both them and the victim as their sin. This carefully prepares us for Mills’ final transformation into the personification of Wrath, shooting a helpless, dead John Doe multiple times in the desert as Somerset watches, despairing and powerless to intervene.

Many viewers claim they could predict the contents of Doe’s gruesome delivery at the film’s finale. Although I can’t say I knew what was coming, I believe them, as the film is peppered with references to the conspicuously absent Tracy in the lead-up to her death. Aside the none-too-subtle splice of a close-up on Tracy’s angelic face prior to Mills shooting Doe, we are told that she has tried to call Mills earlier that day at his office prior to Doe’s bloody appearance. Later, Mills flippantly jokes that although Doe will enjoy cable TV in prison, even his wife cannot share in that luxury. Finally, the last time we see Tracy and Mills together, on the night of the sixth day, Mills curls up to his wife’s reclining form and tells her how much he loves her. She answers simply, ‘I know’. We rapidly cut to Somerset, restless and unable to sleep, channelling his own rage by throwing his switchblade into a dartboard with disarming accuracy. Maddened by the incessant tick-tock of the metronome by his bed, in a fit of rage he dashes the object against the floor. With the destruction of the metronome, we implicitly have both the destruction of Somerset’s attempt to control the film’s course, and the end of the plot’s time-keeper. The metronome’s motion begins with the start of Somerset’s final seven days, and is disrupted at the same point that Mills’ and Tracy’s relationship, and implicitly the future of their child, is presented to us for the last time. Their demise is inevitable.

By tying up the narrative and completing the serial killer’s intended Se7en murders with the destruction of Mills, Andrew Kevin Walker disrupts our expectations of the classic detective story by transforming the resolution of both the crime and the story’s structure into the death of the detective. Contrary to Barry Norman’s assessment, I believe we are given precisely the ending we deserve. In exposing the pervasive sin present in all humanity, Doe has no choice but to engineer his own death as part of his plan, whilst also exposing Mills’ propensity to sin. When Mills defiantly argues for following Doe into the desert to find his two remaining victims, Mills unwittingly signs his own death warrant whilst simultaneously satisfying his hungry audience; ‘Let’s finish it,’ he says.

Left by Doe at the scene of Gluttony, Milton’s line from Paradise Lost; ‘Long is the way and hard that out of hell leads up to light’ encapsulates the route taken by Walker, Fincher and their audience in Se7en. In a film where darkness is pervasive, we are given soft lighting at the Mills’ apartment as Tracy strives for something approaching friendship with Somerset, dingy daylight in the café where Tracy confides that she is pregnant to Somerset, and scorching but strangely bleak brightness when Tracy’s head is delivered to Somerset in a box. In the eye-watering light of the desert dusk, Doe’s plan is finally visible to all. Mills becomes Wrath, and with his transformation comes the perfect completion of Doe’s seven symbolic murders, and with this, comes the perfect conclusion to the film. It’s a nasty, terrible story that Walker and Fincher, in implicit alliance with their serial killer John Doe, have chosen to tell, but you can’t quibble with its execution.

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At 31 May, 2007 14:23 , Blogger p dog said...

I saw Sevn when it came out, at a matinee in a movie theater. When I came out, into hot sunshine, I was completely disoriented. Plus I felt like I needed to take a serious shower.



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