2020 hasn't necessarily been kind to us in the first quarter and it has been hard to escape talk here and there (yes, via Whatsapp too) about the persistent pestilences that are plaguing humanity in general, among other things - pandemics, locusts and God knows what else. Foreboding signs with people even quoting Holy Scriptures about the same, saying that the aforementioned malaise is the result of collective sin! Curiosity piqued; it wasn't hard to imagine this whole sin/repentance/punishment thread being grist for the Hollywood mill. The other movie choice, 2011's Contagion aside, why not extrapolated the analysis into a movie about... the seven deadly sins perhaps? That's just a short stretch of imagination away! And Se7en (1995) is one of the best in any list of thrillers.
I thought I'd give this film a whirl the other weekend not because it is one of those movies whose sheer excellence has stood the test of time, but also because, hey, it makes for a gripping rainy day watch as well. Movies that have great atmosphere and mood that add to the overall impact of the script have always been a big draw for me and Howard Shore's score in Se7en adds to that in heaps. A movie about two cops chasing a bad guy is as old as cinema itself. But this is different. The film's set is almost like a survival horror video game - dilapidated buildings, damp ceilings, dank corridors and exposed wires... and each of the 'events' in the film is meticulously thought out and constructed. Having said that, the third segment of the film is especially - and one doesn't use this word often - gripping. And speaking of atmosphere, pictured in an unnamed city, the mood and events draw you in. It's raining or night time most of the time, adding to the intensity of crime fighting under dark skies - a visual metaphor for you - with the sun only peeping through here and there throughout the movie, until the end but for the most part, the set pieces are like a labyrinthine maze, a conundrum, a surreal show, a gallery of horrors. Morgan Freeman's Detective Somerset seems like the proverbial man who fell to earth (referencing 1976's cult classic The Man Who Fell To Earth starring David Bowie and Rip Torn) with almost no backstory. There are plenty of close up shots of his face, sometimes peering out of a cab, or hunched on a barstool, the expression is that of a seeker. World-weary but whip-smart.
Morgan Freeman is perfectly cast as the seen-it-all, slightly jaded cop who has all the connections. He is saddled with Brad Pitt's character - a hot-blooded alpha male who is eager to put the pedal to the metal, get hot on the chase and hotfoot it to the lair of the perpetrator, instead of cooling his heels in an office waiting for the serial killer (brilliantly essayed by Kevin Spacey, but you only find that out somewhere down the line), to throw another clue across via telephone call, and make his next move. This is one of those pieces of cinema that allows you to notice new elements when you watch it again, primarily due to its layered construction. Somerset, with his brown fedora hat, dry-as-a-bone droll quips and monotone (that is, however, anything but boring) narration is now seen as Morgan freeman trademark - you've heard the monotone narrate hundreds of documentaries probably, and that voice is the perfect sutradhar for whenever a 'God role' is required in celluloid. You get the idea. His character's let-not-anything-bad-happen-just-as-imma-gonna-retire vibe is, understandable, but then again, unlike the buddy cop subgenre, at least Fincher didn't make Brad Pitt's will a green-behind-the-ears junior but rather, someone who knows the job yet chooses the method of more aggression and direct, risk-taking action instead. At times, the pairing of these characters onscreen can be unbalanced but by and large, it works.
Spacey's John Doe exists as more of an ominous entity than anything else. He inhabits this character perfectly. A person of superior sinister intelligence, and the vanity that barely peeps through; he is able to able to harness and manipulate victims and also use them as unwitting human props for his macabre, grotesque deeds. And the best part? Nobody really cottons on to anything. What's interesting is that as Mills and Sommerset keep discovering one twisted contraption after another, they are left bewildered that Doe can actually go about getting the tools he needs without raising suspicion. It's something that cannot be easily done in today's world!. “You made this for him?” they ask at one point, flabbergasted. “I’ve made weirder sh!t than that,” the owner explains. This is a cinematic world where few bat an eyelid at depravity; it has become the norm, and people are by and large numb to it. The dialogues between Doe and the cops allow us to get a vantage point into the latter's psyche and rationale, for want of a better word (and inasmuch as there can be rationale to serial murder). In hindsight, it's hard not to draw parallels with Doe and the careful intonation of the character Verbal in The Usual Suspects, both Spacey. The executions of the murders in the film are narrative goalposts. Might they have been gorier if the film were made today? And speaking of murder, each such episode will remind you of Fincher's other such flick, Zodiac from 2007. Se7en never shows the murders actually happening, as opposed to Zodiac. Another parallel is that the villain in Se7en is not a mystery. Zodiac is more of a whodunit. One is obvious, the other is deliberately vague.
Se7en is also quite structured as opposed to languid meandering, with a beginning where components in the movie are established for the viewer, the middle part where the plot thickens, to use an oft-used phrase and end, where everything comes to a head, pun intended (you'll find out if you haven't seen it already. "It's a surprise", to quote John Doe), and chillingly so. Another strong element in the mix is the existential examination and ruminations on the natures of evil and justice. It's almost Gotham-like; are serial deviants the making of vice-ridden humanity? Do we actually deserve the disease, the locusts, the plague as a punishment? Have we brought it upon us? Divine justice in some perverse way? And how difficult is the path of the righteous? All of it makes for a compelling movie. Perhaps its greatest achievement is that Fincher and team work with a pretty simple premise and manage to elevate it to visceral, ghoulish and sublime art.