I still remember the first time I saw the trailer for Se7en. It was summer vacation, 1995. I was immediately intrigued. Maybe it was because of Morgan Freeman who was coming off Shawshank, and I was hopeful for something of equal quality. Maybe it was the left turn young Bradley Pitt was taking, steering his boat away from “The Sexiest Man Alive” moniker and into some dark territory. Maybe it was the despairing tone the trailer promised. Or maybe I’m just sick in the head and against all reason, attracted to sick things. Probably the latter.
“How's this for culture?”
On Friday nights, the majority of my eighth grade class would turn up outside the local cinema. Our parents didn’t want us kicking around their houses with bubbling hormones and “act-before-you-think” mentalities, so we were pushed out into the world, with no cell phones and very little money, if any. Some of us walked or biked from all over the city to get to the Regal Cinema, and some of the lucky ones got dropped off, but any way you got there, there was always the promise of comedy, drama, and romance – inside and outside the moviehouse. We loitered our socks off all night, commiserating, sharing gossip, flirting, hiding cigarettes and sneaking kisses. And when we had the money, we went to see movies.
On one of these nights, immediately after school let out, I convinced my mother to drive me to the theater and purchase me a ticket for Se7en – it was R-rated. I told her it was a cop movie, but I know that if my mother had had any inkling as to the nature of the film (which, to be fair, I didn’t even really have), she would have loudly protested. I say protested and not forbade because my mother and I had recently come to an understanding.
A couple months before Se7en, right around the time I saw the first trailer for it, I’d come home from the local library with a copy of A Clockwork Orange which my mother reacted to immediately. With caution, worry, and a little disgust, she politely asked me not to watch it, citing the film’s disturbing rape scene. Perhaps since she phrased it as protestation and not an edict, I dug deep for a rebuttal, claiming I was old enough to understand that movies were just movies. I explained that I’d already read a bit about the film’s violent nature but needed to endure that violence since the film was lauded as a classic. I assured her it would be alright, that I wouldn’t be warped, and honestly, I wasn’t. At that age, I was too immature to appreciate Clockwork, and though I tried desperately to understand it, I was mostly confused. The best part was I had unlocked a door. My mother, previously keen to play censor, was now yielding to my own judgment.
“Anyone who spends a significant amount of time with me finds me disagreeable.”
I had my ticket in hand as I stood waiting for the 7:35 showing. Some girls asked me if I was going to see Hackers that night with everyone, and without an ounce of regret, I said, “Nope. I’m going to see Seven.” And when they asked me “With who?” I stuttered briefly before admitting there was no one else – just me. Not surprisingly, these girls thought it was strange that I would go to a movie by myself. I didn’t do it a whole lot, but sometimes there were movies that I wanted to see that no one else did; Leaving Las Vegas andDead Man Walking jump to mind. I watched so many movies alone in my parents’ basement that the prospect didn’t seem so alien. Not to mention, if there was a movie I really wanted to see, I didn’t necessarily want anyone else there with me if they were going to be disruptive. They seemed a bit weirded out: “By yourself? Really?” They graciously offered a perfunctory invite to join them if I changed my mind about hanging out alone on a Friday night. Thankfully, the allure of females failed to supersede my own interests that evening, and I went in to take my seat in the back.
“Honestly, have you ever seen anything like this?”
When the lights go down in a theater, I used to get a thrill. There was a time when a couple of coming attractions were the only commercials that preceded a movie, and those were cued by a slight dimming of the lights. You knew the movie was coming even before the “feature presentation” reel because the lights dimmed fully. And for a few short seconds of silence, the only sound (other than popcorn being masticated) was the whirring and ticking of the projector above your head.
When the credits for Se7en began, I was immediately uncomfortable. I squirmed in my seat, anxious at the inability to escape the scratching sounds, the fleeting insert shots of razorblades shaving at fingertips, and all the while grimacing at the discordant, disturbing music – then I heard “You get me closer to God!”, and I sat up in my seat, assuaged by the usage of NIN. I had the tape (yup) of The Downward Spiral and was well aware of Reznor’s penchant for remixes, and though I’d never heard that version before I felt at once a calmness because I perceived a modicum of understanding for the tone of this upcoming film. Of course, I had no idea.
Even though I was half his age or more, I was drawn to Pitt’s character – young, good-looking white dude just like me. (Snort). In earnest I found him determined, confident, and still a little green around the edges but eager to work. What I didn’t notice, until many viewings later, were his faults. His determination was self-serving and alienated, isolated and trapped his wife. His confidence was in fact arrogance; his inexperience proved detrimental, and his work ethic rarely equated to quality policework. He was short-sighted, impetuous, and excitable, but most importantly, Mills lacked humility. His unearned ego was large and easily bruised, offering a transparent glimpse of his insecurity. From the word go, he clashes with Somerset (Freeman) who is supposed to orient him to his new gig. And though Mills recognizes Somerset’s authority, he glosses over the tutelage, rejects the veteran’s methods, and disobeys consistently. Not exactly a modest student.
However, in spite of all this, Mills is still likable. His youthful arrogance, notwithstanding, he wants to do a good job. Beneath all of his tough-guy, hard cop rigmarole, Mills is, I daresay, an idealist. Not unlike a young teacher who voluntarily takes their talents to an impoverished, failing school district, Mills sees the need for his passion in the despair of the crime ridden, unnamed city. He challenges his partner’s retirement from the force and resignation from civilization. He refuses to concede to Somerset’s evaluation that the world is shot to hell, and we should get out while we can. He believes in people. Or maybe he just believes in his own capacity to save them all.
The fiery Mills is well-contrasted by Freeman’s Somerset, the steady-handed, intelligent, and patient veteran detective. When I first watched the film, I remember admiring Somerset’s resourcefulness and self-reliance; at one point, I even conspired to steal my friend’s dusty metronome off of the piano his family never used anymore. At the same time, since I felt more linkage with Mills, I saw the grump that Mills rebelled against, the soured old man convinced the world was beyond saving. But like Mills, I lacked Somerset’s informing life experiences, and the script only does so much to convince a 14-year old that this grizzled vet has seen enough, that he’s peerless where dedication is concerned, that he’s utterly alone amidst a sea of policeman who’ve numbed themselves to empathy long ago. I wasn’t old or perceptive enough to realize this. As it turns out, Somerset’s fervent and unapologetic pursuit of retirement is a façade, one which begins to show cracks when Mills comes into his life and John Doe’s killings begin. Somerset’s attempts to resist both Mills and the assignment prove to be tentative when he quickly moves from conducting research on Det. Mills’ behalf to accepting a dinner invitation to dine with Mills and his wife. As much as he longs to wash his hands of the job and keep Mills at a distance, Somerset is bound to duty, hamstrung by his last lingering modicum of “give-a-damn”. Or maybe he’s just worried this cocksure little rookie might screw the whole thing up.
“This isn't going to have a happy ending.”
I watched this movie many times, never paying much mind to Mills’ wife, Tracy. Like many young men, it was easy for me to subconsciously dismiss supporting female characters in a male dominated film. Before the age of 25, I can count on one hand the amount of times I found a female character undeniably relatable. More often than not, women in the movies I saw were flat characters adding little to the story, young starlets serving as set design more than actualized characters. Or they were stereotypes devoid of complexity, saturated in elements from only one side of the moral spectrum – insanely evil or perfectly angelic. Even in films where women were featured prominently they were very rarely relatable to a young me in that they tended to occupy a maternal or romantic role, doling out compassion or unconditional love. And I was always more in the business of sponging up love rather than giving it. Thankfully, there has been a bit of a shift both in me and in Hollywood’s attitude where the fairer sex is concerned.
That said, Paltrow plays Pitt’s wife, Tracy Mills, who is hopelessly trapped in an empty home while her husband works and forced to endure the grind of an unforgiving city which is slowly eroding her soul. Unlike the fears Mills or Somerset are forced to face, Tracy’s reality smacks of a palpable fear for audience members, a domestic and relatable fear. Tracy is stuck supporting her husband’s career, friendless and alone. She keeps her recent pregnancy a secret from him as she can’t bear the thought of inflicting the world around her upon a new soul. She confides in Somerset who seemingly convinces her that motherhood might just make her happy. Why doesn’t she talk to her husband? Well, he’s a bit of a reactionary. Perhaps she knows all too well her protests might be drowned out, her concerns waved off. Tracy’s story, for these reasons (and another more spoilerly one) mark her as the most tragic character of the film – a marginalized woman and apprehensive mother, trapped in a despairing world, lonely, and incapable of communicating compromise with her absent husband.
“I feel like saying more, but I don't want to ruin the surprise.”
Since seeing this film in the theater, I have slowly fallen in love with Fincher. This was before the time when my college roommate taught me to “follow directors, not actors”. Back then, I really only knew Steven Spielberg and didn’t think about the generals of movie sets. However, when I saw “From the makers of Seven” in front of the ads for 1997’s The Game, I was immediately drawn in. In fact, other than Alien3 , I’ve seen every one of Fincher’s films in the theaters, even Fight Club during its dismal theatrical run. Fincher has evolved considerably since the 90s. Apart from adopting more and more digital tools, diversifying his script choices, and dabbling in streaming television, his films – beginning with Panic Room – have slowly moved away from the depressive Seven and the nihilistic Fight Club. Though he has returned to the serial killer scenario with Zodiac and Mindhunter, he also branched out with the Shakespearean Social Network and his Oscar-nominated fairytale, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. His style has certainly evolved for the better. Films like Gone Girl and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are thematically relatable to his 90s films but possess a steadier hand and less conspicuous camerawork. While I am nostalgically connected to his earlier films, I continue to be impressed by his evolution. He is certainly one of the most exciting directors working today, and there is a sense that, in spite of his already impressive filmography, his best entries are yet to come.
“Ernest Hemingway once wrote, "The world is a fine place and worth fighting for." I agree with the second part.“
When Freeman delivers this final line, the screen goes dark as he walks towards the back of the frame. I remember sitting in the silent theater. All the popcorn and soda were gone. No was stirred. And the sounds of California’s helicopter circled the theater a few times before trailing off. This was the first time sitting a theater where I felt paralyzed by a film. When the credits (which atypicalled rolled from top to bottom) breached the screen, I didn’t move. I watched them all. Not because I wanted to. Because I was stunned.
Unpredictably, Seven has become increasingly difficult to watch. I’ve owned several copies of it over the last twenty-three years and rewatched it in the ballpark of twenty-five times. The older I’ve gotten, the sullen tone and nihilistic ending which once made me beam have begun to sink their claws more effectively into my slowly softening skin. As a younger man, I luxuriated in the cynicism and horror of the film, as though it validated my nascent understanding of a world I’d only read about in books or seen on the news. If I was lucky enough to talk a virgin into watching it, I sat and relished their growing horror and disbelief: “Pretty messed up, huh!?!” Nowadays, I almost feel as if I could cry during the final, damaging reel.
I’ve long since shed the notion that movies can only be good if they end negatively. I think any burgeoning cinephile goes through this phase. That’s not to say that I’ve retreated solely to the safety of happy endings; I still think films with dark content or a downer ending are valuable, if only for their sense of verisimilitude (yes, I’m still a reluctant cynic). And while Seven isn’t nearly as shattering as Requiem for a Dream or The Stoning of Soraya M, it has nonetheless, taken hold of me, continuing to occupy a darkened corner of my mind. It’s a bit like a traumatic experience. For my part, there really hasn’t been anything quite like Seven, nothing that has cut me so deep, creating a wound that reopens every time I screen it, a wound that requires more time to heal with each viewing. Call it masochism if you like, but I call it…well...yeah, it’s masochism. But if it hurts, it’s also good cinema.