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Non-Review Review: se7en

We’re currently blogging as part of the “For the Love of Film Noir” blogathon (hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren) to raise money to help restore the 1950’s film noir The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me). It’s a good cause which’ll help preserve our rich cinematic heritage for the ages, and you can donate by clicking here. Over the course of the event, running from 14th through 21st February, I’m taking a look at the more modern films that have been inspired or shaped by noir. Today’s theme is “nineties noir” – I’ll be looking at two of the finest noir-inspired films of the nineties.

Although David Fincher has directing credits before se7en (most notably Alien 3), it was this look at a broken world which marked the up-and-coming director as a talent to watch. It’s a movie which works on many levels, entertaining on the superficial surface level while intriguing viewers looking for something just a little bit deeper. I have to say, of all the films I revisited as part of this blogging event, I think I got the most out of returning to se7en.

A big part of taking part in this event (and I sat on the fence for quite a while) was determining what constituted a noir film or a neo-noir film, depending on our classifications. se7en measures up to almost any yardstick you can use for the genre (or subgenre). It has all the stylistic qualities of a broken world, substituting rain for fog and desaturating itself to the point where some scenes (our introduction to Mills, for example, might as well have been shot in black-and-white). It’s a movie about crime (although it substitutes a serial killer for the traditional gangsters), and it shares strong thematic elements – most notably the philosophy of a world half-full.

Set in an unnamed sit, the mood is immediately overwhelming. The rain is constantly beating down, and the sun is only seldom seen in flashes escaping through the buildings. It’s a maze, a trap, a freak show, a crazed gallery. Detective Sommerset, so close to retirement, still hasn’t adjusted entirely to his surroundings. As he drives around in a taxi, looking out his window at the gallery, he isn’t clear where he’s going – “far away from here.” Asked by his chief where he plans to retire to, he remarks that he plans to move to a farm somewhere.

Armed and dangerous?

The city is a sinister character, threatening to crush our detectives. Fincher’s wonderful sound mixing is in effect here, as the city is literally never quiet. Detective Sommerset has served his time, and he’s seen it all. Detective Mills is new, having come from “up state” and he finds it quite an adjustment (as does his wife). To Sommerset and his fellow officers, the introductory scene (a murder that developed from a domestic disturbance) is “nothing new.” Sommerset thinks to ask about the particulars of the case, especially the couple’s child, but receives a dismissive response, “It’s always these questions with you. ‘Did the kid see it?’ Who gives a %&@#? He’s dead, his wife killed him, anything else has nothing to do with us.”

There’s a marked tone of indifference which just radiates from the authority figures. The first murder of the film, a man forced to literally eat himself to death, is dismissed by the chief. “Somebody had a problem with a fat sack of wind and decided to torture him.” That’s it, as if it’s nothing important to worry about – just another day in the city. “I don’t understand this place anymore,” Sommerset confesses, but even his colleagues are so desensitised that they can’t tell how bad things are. “It’s always been like this,” his superior assures him. When Mills is frustrated by how quickly photographers can arrive at the scene of a crime, Sommerset explains, “They pay police for information, and they pay well.” Ratting to the press pays better than honest police work.

He's making a list...

A trip to the flat that Mills residents now live in reveals that Detective Mills keeps two dogs – a memory from the couple’s rural life. However, what quality of life is there for these animals in the city? They live in a square room, with newspaper on the floor, and only ever get out when Mills can take them for a walk. It’s not much of a life, living in a box like that. That said, how much better is life for anybody else in the city? Mills confronts an owner of a seedy establishment, “Do you like what you do for a living? These things you see?” The proprietor responds, “No I don’t… but that’s life, isn’t it?”

The movie seems to be a condemnation of how numb big city living has made us. The city in the film is never named, and it could be any number of places, after all, they’re all the same, aren’t they? “In any major city,” Sommerset explains, “minding your own business is a science.” To the seasoned detective, the city “embraces and nurtures apathy” and people respond to that. The problem is that it’s a reasonable response to the world. To quote Sommerset, “apathy is a solution.”

Run of the Mills...

As Mills and Sommerset are confronted with the horrific contraption that John Doe ordered from a leather fetish shop, they struggle to wonder how a client ordering something as disgusting and lethal as that (it’s literally in my nightmares) could do so without triggering any alarms or concerns. “You made this for him?” they ask, flabbergasted. “I’ve made weirder sh!t than that,” the owner explains. This is a world where depravity has become the norm, and we’ve allowed ourselves to become numb to it.

Throughout the film, the serial killer John Doe is able to use and manipulate any number of people (from the delivery man at the end, to the sex club proprietor, the leather designer and the landlord), without anybody ever figuring anything out. While Sommerset is horrified by this attitude of indifference, the serial killer’s entire spree is a response to it (we are confronted with horrors everyday, he argues, and “we tolerate it” – if you want people to notice, “you have to hit them with a sledgehammer”).

Shining some light on the matter...

The implications of this sense of anomie are obvious, and stretch beyond crime and murder into ordinary everyday life. Mills’ wife finds herself calling up Sommerset in order to have someone to talk to. “You’re the only person that I know here,” she confesses. One wonders how the climax of the movie might have played out differently if Mills had read a note given to him, rather than putting it in his pocket and forgetting about it. It’s a horrible world which makes people so hard and uncaring.The movie ends with a quote from Hemmingway, but another one came to my mind as I watched the credits scroll backwards (a strangely disturbing effect):

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.

Sommerset explains how, after his lover got pregnant, he pressured her into having an abortion – deciding he couldn’t raise a child here. “I can tell you now that I know … I mean, I’m positive … that I made the right decision,” he assures Mills’ wife. “But there’s not a day that passes that I don’t wish that I had made a different choice.” It’s a horrible world that makes the right choice an impossible one to live with.

Partners against crime...

It’s easy to dismiss se7en as an essentially shallow experience. At one point Mills writes off the antics of the movie’s serial killer as fodder for a “movie of the week”. And yet there’s an underlying intelligence underneath all this. the movie cleverly links the classics and the notion of human suffering – dismissing the idea that this sort of graphic depravity is new in any form of entertainment. It links the antics of the killer back to Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost, including some shots at the illustrations. Although these are grand comparisons to make, they skilfully demonstrate that gore and art are not mutually exclusive.

In many ways, it reminds me of The Silence of the Lambs, by taking an inherently trashy concept and executing it with utmost skill and professionalism – showing great taste in tackling what could easily be dismissed as tasteless. The oppressing score from Howard Shore certainly helps the mood, and reminds me in many ways of that Best Picture winner – another example of the union between high culture and low culture.

Mills needs to cop on...

The casting is superb. Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt are on top form. There’s strong support from Richard Roundtree, R. Lee Ermey and Gwenyth Paltrow – along with smaller roles for John C. McGinley, Leland Orser and Michael Massee among others. Of particular note is the actor who plays John Doe. He didn’t want his appearance spoiled, so he omitted his name from the opening credits – and I’ll respect that wish. Still, he’s brilliant it. You’ll know who he is when you see it.

There are some tiny flaws (for example, the contrived ending), but these are relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. What matters is that se7en is a superb film adaptation which has a lot going on and a lot to recommend it. It’s a tough watch at times, as it threatens to overwhelm the viewer (and a nice “happy” film might be recommended for afterwards), but it demonstrates a lot of the skills Fincher would put to great skill in his later career.

Missing it would be a sin.

If you enjoyed this post, please make a donation to the blogathon if you can. All funds go to help restore the classic The Sound of Fury, a very worthwhile cause and a wonderful contribution to make to the arts. Click the image below to donate.

2 Responses

  1. Nice piece. What I think is most interesting in the film is the implication that the serial killer is, essentially, *right*. The world of the film *is* shitty, it is horrible, it is ugly, and when John Doe finally makes his appearance at the end of the film, his arguments are sneakily compelling; he seems almost reasonable, which is itself pretty horrifying.

    • Thanks. Doe essential share’s Sommerset’s perspective, but he’s actually trying to do something about how terrible the world is – something horrifying and awful, but he’s not passively accepting it. It’s a very disturbing little film, and not just on a visceral level.

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