Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What's In The Box: Revisiting Se7en

I decided to rewatch David Fincher's Se7en today. Spur of the moment it was, it just popped up in my head. I've always really loved that movie, but I was actually intrigued to see how it held up after 15 years and a good five years or so since I last watched it. Thankfully, silly title and all, the movie remains very good, but I doubt that, if I saw it for the first time today, I would have been quite as enthusiastic as I was years ago.

Se7en retains its status as one of the most original serial killer movies, I think that's safe to say. It would also rank as one of the best thrillers ever made, too, but I have some issues. The setting is, at times, too dank for its own good. As atmospheric as it is, especially when set to Howard Shore's score, there's something unappealing about making this already quite sick tale even more nauseating. The film's best scene for me is the entirety of the third act, and it works so well because it breaks out from the oppressive scenery that has engulfed the rest of the film by that point. It's like my eyes are being rewarded. There's only so many dilapidated buildings, dripping ceilings and exposed wires I can look at. Typing that out sounds so silly since I'm writing about a movie that features one of the most disturbing scenes I have ever watched ("Sloth", naturally).

As far as negatives go, however, I really do think that's about it. Sure, I might have cared for a little bit less of the Morgan Freeman is a sad sack stuff, but it is at least there for advance the film and not to just make audiences miserable. This time around I noticed for a film noir influence, especially in the character of Somerset, with his fedora hat and droll quips and his monotone narration. His character's one-week-until-retirement-i-hope-i-don't-die situation is, perhaps, on the nose, but at least they didn't make Brad Pitt's character a fresh-faced rookie and went out of their way to make us aware that he has been doing this for many years. It helps to flesh out Pitt's character who, at times, comes off as more childish than anything else.

I do wonder how it would go if made today. Would it be gorier? Would they focus on the killings much more than they did in 1995, and if they did would they be portrayed as sadistically as one imagines they would be?

Speaking of focusing on the murders, I also found it interested watching Se7en for the first time since having seen David Fincher's other serial killer movie, Zodiac from 2007, that they are opposites of sorts. In Se7en we don't actually see any of the truly grisly torturous parts and the film goes out of its way to be as thorough as possible, whereas Zodiac shows the murders in intricate detail and also never quite resolves anything. While I'm not sure what that says about Fincher, I think it makes a fascinating study nonetheless. Another opposing method can be found in the characters played by Kevin Spacey and John Carroll Lynch. Whether you believe the latter is the Zodiac killer or not is besides the point, the film sure wants to position Lynch as it, and in that regard he is very much the opposite of Spacey's "John Doe". One is obvious, the other vague, and they each go to reaffirm what kind of movies they are in.

Se7en is far more "traditional" in the sense that it has its beginning, middle and end and everything it does it does well. Zodiac, as I remember it, does everything well, but "everything" isn't necessarily everything that makes a compelling movie. I really liked Zodiac, don't get me wrong, but I think it's worth noting that Se7en was a big box office hit whereas Zodiac was not and the latter eschews many conventions that make a popular movie. Did David Fincher deliberately make Zodiac as a reply to Se7en? Did he want to give the finger to people who had followed him into rather mainstream territory on films such as Se7en and Panic Room by throwing them a curveball that they couldn't see coming? If that's the case how does one explain The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?

And while we're on the issue of Fincher, his career is both fascinating and increasingly worrisome. He has The Social Network with Jesse Eisenberg and Justin Timberlake out later this year, but after that who knows. According to IMDb he is attached to 12 titles some of which include an American adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a remake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and something called Black Hole, which I can only assume is a science fiction movie. You certainly cast say he's lazy, but I hope he can churn out something as original and riveting as Se7en again soon.


Ed Howard said...

Interesting take on this film that does remain relevant and thrilling despite all the time that has passed since its initial hyped-up emergence. I revisited it about a year ago as well, while revisiting and writing about Fincher's career as a whole, and Se7en is an interesting twist on the themes — the decay of capitalistic/materialistic society, the need for a violent purge to shake things up — that would run through his next few movies as well. There are certainly continuities between John Doe and Tyler Durden, for example, as two characters who seek to expose the emptiness and spiritual bankruptcy of their surroundings, using violence to do so.

I think Zodiac is ultimately a better film, and indeed Fincher's best film yet, but it's not surprising that it wasn't as commercially successful. The later film puts the focus entirely on the mood and atmosphere, on a slow build-up that eventually simply dissipates; Fincher is very concerned with process and details, even when all that slow accumulation ultimately leads, as it does here, to dissatisfaction and uncertainty.

I really hope Fincher does make the long-rumored Black Hole movie, based on the awesome teen horror comic by Charles Burns. Cronenberg might've been a better choice for that comic's potent body horror, but I have no trouble imagining Fincher doing a great job with it as well. Benjamin Button has its moments, but I think Fincher's probably more comfortable in less sentimental territory.

Culture Snob said...

One of my first thoughts about Zodiac was that it seemed to be nearly an apology for Se7en -- realistic and measured instead of gothic and thriller-y.

I don't think Fincher needs to apologize for Se7en, but it's certainly an immature work in many ways. (I don't mean that as a dig; it's natural for one's second feature.)

Simon said...

What does it say about Fincher? He goes for the anticlimax. In Seven, we get the grisly result, but no real killings onscreen, and the reveal of the killer on his own accord before the end of the second act.

Meanwhile, in Zodiac, we get the grisly details of the act, but no resolution, faked out at the end but having it taken away by a couple epilogue sentences. This is no surprise if you know the case, but anyway, that's my theory.

Or maybe he just wanted two contrasting types of serial killer movies, so nobody could accuse him of repetition.

Anonymous said...

Zodiac is a true story...