Friday, December 4, 2009

Se7en: The (nearly) Perfect Film

by John Miller

The (nearly) Perfect Film
From its opening scenes, David Fincher’s SE7EN grabs the viewer's attention with a vice-like grip that doesn’t let go until the closing credits. For fans of dark material, SE7EN is a nearly perfect film. Why nearly? Well, is there anything in the world (besides one’s own newborn child, of course!) that is perfect? Probably not, but when it comes to film, SE7EN is about as close as it gets.
One does not have to be a fan of serial killer films or police procedurals to appreciate the excellence of this movie. Critics often dismiss genre art, whether in film or in print, as a lesser form of entertainment, as if the mere fact that the film can be pigeonholed into a genre slot diminishes it somehow. But quality in any form always transcends the medium or genre by which it is delivered, and this film is no exception. SE7EN contains graphic images of death and mayhem (not a problem for fans of this site, obviously), and a host of gruesome and disturbing ideas, but they’re done in service of the story rather than the other way around, and they’re packaged in a story that is mesmerizing.
So what is it that makes this film so nearly perfect? Let’s start with the true foundation of all films: the script. You can hire an excellent director and great actors, and if you match them up with a lousy script, then you end up with a lousy film. On the other hand, an excellent script can elevate a mediocre director and mediocre actors. Obviously, as a writer, I am prejudiced in favor of the written word. But you only need to check out a few of the hundred-million dollar bore-fests that Hollywood pumps out every summer, constantly underestimating the intellectual capacity of its audience, thinking that action trumps story and character, to see the truth in that.

In SE7EN, Andrew Kevin Walker’s script manages to perfectly blend the police procedural and the serial killer story without giving short shrift to either genre. At the same it time gives Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt excellent lines and excellent personal moments. It is those intimate and revealing touches that connect audiences with characters, that builds a rapport that makes the audience actually care about what happens to them. Lest anyone think that SE7EN consists of only a good script, let me add that the bonuses in this film are outstanding direction by David Fincher and wonderful performances by Freeman, Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Kevin Spacey. Just because the script is the most important element doesn’t mean that a film can’t be made even better.

SE7EN has spoiled me. Since first seeing it in the mid-90s, I have compared it to every serial killer film before and since, and still not found its equal. The closest was a film that actually came before SE7EN, Thomas Harris’s Academy Award-winning SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. I think SE7EN is a better film. But the two share many similar qualities, including something vital to the success of such horror/thriller films, and something else that elevates SE7EN: an outrageously smart killer.
The fact is, the more intelligent a villain is, the more frightening. The idea of an avalanche falling on you, for example, or being caught in a tornado or a flash flood or by some other force of nature is scary, but unless you suffer from a phobia of such events, it is an impersonal and manageable kind of fear. Death can be cheated simply by avoiding certain locales or weather conditions. The "bad thing" hasn’t the ability to intentionally seek you out. But the intelligent monster that wants to destroy you, and has the ability to defeat your attempts to protect yourself by nature of its intellect, ah, now that’s really scary. And it’s far more frightening if the monster is actually smarter than you, in which case you are almost certainly doomed. Force of nature villains, such as the shark in JAWS, are made infinitely scarier by the implication that they are actually intelligent. In that film, the shark seems to be countering every move Scheider and company make. It is intent, especially intent with the capacity to carry out that intent, that is most frightening to the average person. It is Hannibal Lecter’s blinding intellect that makes him such a frightening villain.

This holds true for the villain in SE7EN as well. He is so diabolically clever, so fiendishly smart, that at no point in the film is he not in control of events as they unfold, and the fear factor is greatly amplified by the fact that you don’t fully realize the truth of this situation until the very end, in a denouement so devastatingly clever that the viewer has no idea it is coming. What appears to be a battle of equals, cops against bad guy, turns out to have been a lopsided battle in which the villain had total control the whole time, as if police and everyone else were mere puppets in his terrible play. Compare this to the supernaturally indestructible villains in slasher films. They unfortunately suffer from the Superman syndrome in reverse. Superman was a bit uninteresting when he was virtually indestructible. That’s why his creators had to give him an Achilles’ heel: kryptonite. This vulnerability made stories about him far more suspenseful. In the case of Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, to name some of the most famous supernatural villains, they simply cannot be killed. Since we all know this, there is little suspense to their movies other than what method they will choose to dispatch the randy teenagers, and at what point will they suddenly pop out from behind something and startle us. John Doe from SE7EN is a far more frightening killer, simply because he could actually exist, and there is real risk in what he is doing. John Doe can fail, and even die, just like the rest of us. This raises the stakes immeasurably, and makes for a far more entertaining and much higher quality film.

A word about the end of the film. When Fincher first read the script, he decided he wanted to make the film. By the time he was ready to get started, however, the script had undergone multiple revisions, and what he originally found so compelling had been scrubbed out of the story. Unlike in another of his films that I am particularly fond of, THE GAME, this time he stuck to his guns and refused to allow changes to the original script, particularly the ending. Would that he had been so courageous regarding THE GAME, another almost perfect film derailed by a schmaltzy Hollywood ending.

SE7EN is a must see film for fans of dark fiction. If you have already seen it, watch it again, and this time pay attention to how the script skillfully blends suspense and character study, and take note of the directing genius of Fincher, who in my mind is the reigning master of dark suspense thrillers. If you haven’t seen it yet, then I am envious of you. Run, don’t walk, to the nearest Blockbuster or your computer and rent it or download it (through Netflix or some other legal means, of course) today. If you’re here reading this, and you enjoy this website, then you will love SE7EN.

--John Miller