' Cinema Romantico: Wistfully '95: Se7en

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Wistfully '95: Se7en

Since I could finally both drive and get into R-rated movies in 1995, it doubled as the year in which I fell head over heels in love for the experience of Going To The Movies. And so, here in the future in 2015, we will periodically re-visit a handful of the offerings to which I first paid homage in various multiplex cathedrals of Des Moines, Iowa. 

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This isn’t going to have a happy ending.” This is Detective William Somerset’s (Morgan Freeman) extremely early and exceedingly apt appraisal of the police investigation that gives David Fincher’s “Seven” its story. It’s a line steeped in fatalism so familiar to noir, as is the rest of the film’s set-up involving Somerset, an obligatory week away from retirement, tasked with mentoring a young detective, David Mills (Brad Pitt), as they struggle to solve a particularly macabre murder case with a nameless villain who seems only interested in taunting the investigators.


Eventually Somerset and Mills reach the conclusion a serial killer is at work, basing his actions on The Seven Deadly Sins, a potentially pretentious gimmick bundled with moderate torture porn. (There are people who tell you this movie is graphic without being graphic. That’s true of the harrowing conclusion, yes, but not the early scenes which are quite graphic even if they often come cloaked in darkness.) Yet it works by never resigning itself to a mere procedural. “Who Did It?” eventually gives way to “Why Is He Doing It?”, a much more fascinating query that is conveyed with escalating dread.

That dread is effectively captured in the film’s look, one in which Fincher and his cinematographer Darius Khondji transform New York City into a brownish cesspool of urban decay. It evokes a less futuristic “Blade Runner” as seen through a mid-90’s Instagram filter called “Septic Tank”. Rain throttles the screen in scene after scene; at one point the downpour seems to completely engulf the windshield of Mills’ and Somerset’s car. In another scene Mills stands beneath yet another deluge with two cups of coffee, helpless, which might as well be an emblem for the brewing storm that he and his partner cannot avoid.


For all the harshness of this world, however, both in its plotting and its atmospherics, a certain level of hope thrives in its principal characters, all of whom might be cut from cardboard but are nonetheless sprinkled with fairy dust bringing them to life. Freeman outfits Somerset with a reluctant gravitas, accrued over the years of seeing the worst the world has to give. Even so, even as he waits for the worst yet again, there is an occasional flicker in those eyes. When he enters the library late at night to conduct research into the man they are tracking, Somerset gives a smile and a “hello” to the guard on duty; Somerset’s in his happy place. And it speaks volumes that the movie pauses from its festival of grime to give him a happy place, one awash in the almost saintly light cast by the rows and rows of green lamps. Mills, meanwhile, convinced they can “win” this case right up until the very end, has a na├»vety that’s as moving as it is terrible. One shot finds him rolling around on newspaper in his apartment with his dogs, just an overgrown kid, and the way in which Somerset takes in his young charge in this moment is heartbreaking.

So is the moment Somerset shares at a greasy spoon diner with David’s wife, Tracy, brought to glorious life by the these-days much maligned Gwyneth Paltrow. Initially her character might seem a contrivance, existing to get offed to spur the film to its end point, yet she’s so much more. She has love in her heart but has lost it in the dense thicket of this foul city; she’s caught between the weary-eyed cynicism of Somerset and the righteousness of her spouse. She is us.


You know what happens to her if you’ve seen the movie, of course, and if you haven’t, you don’t deserve a spoiler, not even twenty years later. You should see it with fresh eyes. And even to see it for the umpteenth time is to see it with fresh eyes. It’s like getting pulled back in all over again, back to the point where Tracy is in that scene at the coffee shop with Somerset, hopeful but hopeless, looking not merely for guidance, but for a spark, for someone to tell her not that everything is going to be all right (motherfucker, please) but that life is still worth fighting for.

That’s the idea that Somerset returns to in the closing voiceover in the aftermath of the investigation in the form of an Ernest Hemingway line. “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for,” he recites. Then he reckons: “I agree with the second part.” Maybe he does, but as the years go on the less sure I am that the movie around him agrees. What begins as fatalism is eventually washed away in the unseen blood of nihilism. Perhaps a song from Tupac Shakur’s album of the same year summarizes better? “Fuck the World.”

1 comment:

Alex Withrow said...

Great post. One of my all time favorite films. I agree, every time I watch this, it's like I'm seeing it with fresh eyes. I remember showing this to my stepbrother (who's 10 years younger), when his mom agreed that he was finally "of age" to see it. Kid had no idea what it was about, and watching his reactions to it made me fall in love with the flick all over again.