Monday, June 9, 2014

Se7en: The Way That Leads Up To The Light

It's rare that I remember the first time I watch a film, no matter how good it is. It’s just not the sort of experience that typically makes an impression on me. I remember the first time I watched The Shining, because I remember being utterly terrified by the ads for it as a child, and when as a teenager I finally gathered the courage to watch it, it was on network television, constantly interrupted by commercials and weather alerts, and even with the constant disruption it still reached right back to the deep nightmare part of my brain.

I also remember the first time I ever watched Se7en. I’d been waiting for it to come out on video because I missed it in theaters and all of the ads made it look really interesting as far as theatrical serial killer movies went. So for a couple of weeks I made a habit of swinging by my neighborhood video place to see if they’d gotten a copy in yet. One night I was coming back from a double feature at a small arthouse theater and stopped at the video store on the way home. It must have been 10:30 or 11 at night, but they finally had a copy. Despite the fact that I’d been watching movies for the better part of the night, I took it home and put it on. I don’t think I was able to fall asleep until about 3 or 4am after watching it, so afraid I was of closing my eyes. It made an impression on me as a film that on first viewing felt palpably evil - it shook and disturbed me in a way that few films had before or have since.

It opens in quiet and stillness, with a detective at home gathering the tools of his trade for another day at work. His beat is the city - it’s never specified where, it’s always just “the city” - and he surveys a crime scene with a practiced, weary eye. He’s William Somerset, and he’s seven days away from retirement. Other cops don’t seem too broken up about his leaving - they think he thinks too much, asks pointless questions. Somerset thinks down into the situation, looks at the world beyond its surface details, and it seems like a career of doing this has made him tired and sad, and he just wants to be over.

But it isn’t over yet, and he has to meet his new partner, David Mills. Mills chose to be transferred to a job in the city from somewhere out in the suburbs, and he’s pretty much the spot-on cocky new cop, all wisecracks and assertions that he’s not just some rookie and Somerset is not trying to hear it at all. He has no patience for this guy, he just wants him to stay out of the way until his seven days tick down. But they’ve caught another case, and it’s, well, it’s a weird one. In a squalid basement apartment, a man sits dead at a table, his hands and feet bound. He’s a very large man, and by all accounts, he was force-fed at gunpoint until his throat swelled from the effort of swallowing and his stomach began to tear. Behind his refrigerator, written in grease, the word “gluttony.”

There are seven deadly sins, and this is the first.

What sticks with me most about Se7en is its palpable cruelty - not just in the murders themselves, which are awful - gruesome in their literal instantiation of the sins they illustrate, but also in the way that the antagonist deliberately extends suffering to people beyond his victims. The wife of one victim is forced to look through the crime scene photos, her husband’s mutilated body barely obscured by sticky notes, and her fresh grief and pain in the face of the necessary task is awful. Another man is made complicit in the death of another - what choice do you have when a gun is in your mouth? - and it’s clear from his anguished testimony that he’s broken by this experience. It's one of the few serial killer films (a genre of which I am not fond) that bothers to acknowledge the pain and damage that the murders cause to the living as well, and the murders, though theatrical, seem grounded in a particular purpose, which is another element I think so many lesser films miss, mistaking elaborate staging as the end, rather than a means. We barely ever see the antagonist on screen, but the damage he does runs throughout the film, making him monstrous through his deeds rather than any elaborate costume or gimmick.

And the city is…well, not a character of its own, but certainly an insistent note underneath the proceedings. The city is what gives birth to these atrocities and lesser atrocities every day. Somerset takes a cab ride and the view out the window is vague shapes, bodies moving in the rain and it seems like something out of a Francis Bacon painting. It is a dehumanizing place, almost always raining, shabby gray buildings blotting out the sky. Nobody in this movie is happy, courtesy and warmth are in scarce supply. It’s a bleak place where vicious things happen and the best you can hope for is that you don’t have to step on too many bodies in the course of a single day. It’s almost tiring to exist in this place for the course of the movie. It’s a dark place, and that’s how I remembered it from my previous viewings, but my memory of the film is faulty - I always remember it as being shot as a very dark, gloomy film until the denouement, when everything brightens up, but that's not how it is at all. Light plays a huge role in this film throughout - friendly interiors are warm and golden, whether it's a new home or an old library, crime scenes are sometimes pitch-dark and illuminated only by flashlight, sometimes they're lit by the sun pouring in through the windows, sometimes they're fitfully lit by neon. People die in the most squalid of basement apartments and porn shops, and people die in office high-rises and penthouses, and the light shining upon their deaths is as different as they and their ends are. Characters are framed in light - soft light, hard light, they are backlit. I mean yes, light is an integral part of filmmaking and film viewing, but this is a movie about terrible, terrible things told in sunshowers and sunrises and sunsets and early evening dusk and the harsh light of high noon. It’s amazing how fallible memory is, or maybe how powerfully this film communicates its idea that my memories of it are that it is darker visually than it actually is.

This visual subversion extends to the characters as well. Mills and Somerset seem like a riff on the standard odd-couple cop duo - the mismatch of the weary vet with the wisecracking hotshot who come together and understand each other in the end - but they really are prickly and assholish with each other, it's not cliche. Somerset is thoughtful, cerebral, and entirely too old for this shit. We know this not because he keeps saying it, but we know it in his weariness, his resignation, his desire to be shut of this case so he can just serve out his last seven days and retire to someplace far away. He's seen too much and he can't bear to see any more. He’s not especially nice or sympathetic, but that’s what years of facing the worst of humanity does to someone who thinks and feels deeply. It curdles them. Mills is every cop cliche - he's mouthy, raring to go, sees the cases in black and white terms, but it's not heroic, it's frustrating. You want to reach out and shake him when he reduces the killer to a "nutball" because Somerset is right - this is someone with purpose and method and dismissing things that could get you closer to him is seriously irresponsible. Somerset tackles the case by reviewing Milton, Dante, Chaucer, the ideas of sin and repentance. Mills stares blankly at the crime scene photos. For Somerset, it’s important to know the killer, and for Mills the whole story is the crime. As the movie wears on, there's movement - Somerset's energy is renewed and he takes an active interest, and Mills shows some humanity through the cop façade. Much of this occurs in a nice dinner scene between Somerset, Mills, and Mills’ wife Tracy. She humanizes them, connects them, and helps to provide an oasis from the horror. They take the first steps toward becoming actual partners without everything being resolved neatly. They still disagree with each other, they still rub each other the wrong way, but they’re united in their desire to put a stop to the person committing these horrible crimes.

And the killer is a nice subversion of the typical movie serial killer as well - in the end, he is revealed to be essentially a nonentity, a total mystery in everything but his motives. For as profoundly disturbed as his surroundings reveal him to be (yet another crime scene of sorts, lit mostly in reds), he is remarkably composed and understated. We are denied the history or back story endemic to the most clichéd film depictions of serial killers - everything about him is made manifest in the acts we have witnessed, the carnage - physical and psychological - he has caused. He gives it all to his single-minded act of devotion and leaves nothing for himself, or for us. And in the end, when everything opens up in light and space and bright blue sky, one final atrocity finishes the story - the long struggle up to the light, through squalor and glamor, from the basement apartment at the beginning to the rural purity at the end, all of it was exactly as was planned, as it all had been all along, as if it had been foreordained, as surely as Scripture.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable from Netflix

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