Se7en (1995)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #81

Seven deadly sins. Seven ways to die.

Also Known As: Seven

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 127 minutes
BBFC: 18
MPAA: R

Original Release: 22nd September 1995 (USA)
UK Release: 5th January 1996
First Seen: TV, 12th June 2001 (probably)

Stars
Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption, Million Dollar Baby)
Brad Pitt (Legends of the Fall, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)
Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects, American Beauty)
Gwyneth Paltrow (Sliding Doors, Shakespeare in Love)

Director
David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac)

Screenwriter
Andrew Kevin Walker (8MM, Sleepy Hollow)

The Story
In an unnamed city, two homicide detectives investigate a series of grim murders inspired by the seven deadly sins.

Our Heroes
William Somerset is a detective who works calmly and methodically, and cares more than most. Serving out the last few days before his retirement, he lands a helluva final case. His new partner is David Mills, a hotheaded but idealistic new transfer who’s keen to prove himself. Despite their chalk-and-cheese temperaments, or perhaps because of them, the pair may be ideally suited to catch the elusive killer.

Our Villain
John Doe, a proper psychopath, and on a mission too. I say the detectives are ideally suited to catch him, but, well (major, major spoilers…) they technically don’t and he essentially wins.

Best Supporting Character
R. Lee Ermey’s police captain, purely for the moment when he answers a phone. I love that bit of humour far more than it probably warrants.

Memorable Quote
“What was in the box? What’s in the box? What’s in the fucking box?!” — Mills

Memorable Scene
The climax — just Somerset, Mills, and John Doe, alone in the middle of nowhere… and then a deliveryman shows up. “John Doe has the upper hand!”

Technical Wizardry
The film’s visual style really helps to sell the tone — dark, foreboding, grim. This is in part because it’s always raining, a decision made to increase the sense of dread, and because of Darius Khondji’s cinematography, which employed bleach bypass (see also: Minority Report), a process that serves to deepen shadows. Additionally, for the film’s Platinum Series DVD release it was rescanned from the original negative, meaning the whole film had to have its colour grading re-done. Some of the changes were quite extensive (as detailed in the DVD/Blu-ray’s special features, if you’re interested).

Truly Special Effect
A serial killer thriller might not sound like a special effect showcase, but John Doe’s extreme methods lead to some pretty unusual and gruesome corpses — rendered with suitably sickening prosthetics, of course. ‘Sloth’ is particularly harrowing, though ‘lust’ is so bad it’s left almost entirely to our imagination — though, again, someone had to design and build the… instrument.

Making of
John Doe’s shelves of handwritten notebooks were real and created especially for the film. They took two months to create at a cost of $15,000.

Next time…
Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker originally thought of 8MM as a sequel, and David Fincher was interested, but it didn’t happen and we wound up with the only-half-decent Nicolas Cage-starring Joel Schumacher-directed version instead.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Editing)
1 BAFTA nomination (Original Screenplay)
2 Saturn Awards (Writing, Make-Up)
5 Saturn nominations (Action/Adventure Film, Actor (Morgan Freeman), Supporting Actress (Gwyneth Paltrow), Director, Music)
Places with more taste (i.e. where it won Best Film): Empire Awards, Fantasporto International Fantasy Film Awards, MTV Movie Awards; plus Best Foreign Language Film at Blue Ribbon Awards, Hochi Film Awards, Sant Jordi Awards (Audience Award)

What the Critics Said
“designer unpleasantness is a hallmark of our era, and this movie may be more concerned with wallowing in it than with illuminating what it means politically. Yet the filmmakers stick to their vision with such dedication and persistence that something indelible comes across — something ethically and artistically superior to The Silence of the Lambs that refuses to exploit suffering for fun or entertainment and leaves you wondering about the world we’re living in.” — Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

Score: 80%

What the Public Say
“The rain never ends. There is seldom any sunlight, or any warmth. The city feels like a city of the damned, as if its denizens are souls trapped in some circle of hell from which there is no escape. A feeling of dread pervades everything; there is never any inclination that anything remotely like justice or hope or salvation is even possible here. […] it’s all style and atmosphere but… to criticise the film for that, almost feels like missing the point — it’s so integral to the piece, the atmosphere is actually one of the film’s characters” — the ghost of 82

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I reviewed Se7en quite thoroughly (and, if I do say so myself, quite well) as part of a retrospective on Fincher’s films back in 2011, concluding that “some would claim that Se7en is no more than a standard murder thriller with a stock mismatched pair of detectives. In some respects they’re right, but in enough respects they’re wrong. There’s a killer high concept behind the crimes, but it’s really the execution of the film that makes it so much more. It’s in the performances, the way those stock characters are written, their subplots, the story’s pace, the cinematography, the music, individual sequences like Somerset in the library or the climax that rise not only to the top of the genre but to the top of the very medium of film itself.”

Verdict

When asked, I normally say Se7en is my favourite movie. That’s partly pre-picked just to prevent any such conversations turning into a dreary slog where I um and ah through hundreds of options, but naturally there’s some truth in it. On the surface it’s merely a police procedural, but it’s the way it handles that material that elevates it. It’s a dark film about terrible deeds, which both suits its subject matter (murder isn’t really just a fun little mystery to solve, is it?) and presents a worldview that makes us consider who’s really right and who’s really mad — John Doe is clearly an evil psychopath, but does he have a point? It’s also made with supreme artistry by director David Fincher and his team — I’ve already mentioned DP Darius Khondji, but it’s also superbly edited by Richard Francis-Bruce. And I’d argue it has one of the greatest climaxes ever filmed. There are more easily enjoyable movies in my 100 Favourites, but there are none that are any better made, nor any that better expose the dark heart of humanity.

#82 will be… a big damn movie.

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Superman Returns (2006)

2016 #117
Bryan Singer | 154 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The same summer that Christopher Nolan revitalised the Dark Knight with the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Batman Begins, one of the men who’d helped kickstart the current superhero resurgence, X-Men director Bryan Singer, attempted the same with DC Comics’ other major hero, Superman, only to be met with critical derision and commercial failure.

Except that’s not actually what happened, despite what many have come to believe since. Superman Returns was actually pretty popular with critics: 76% on Rotten Tomatoes, enough to gain a Certified Fresh classification; and if you hone that to just top critics, it scores 68% versus Batman Begins’ 65%. Returns also outgrossed Begins that summer, taking $391 million worldwide to the Bat’s $374 million. These are all small margins, but even just being on the same level as each other demonstrates something about how perception and accepted narratives can distort what actually happened.

Of course, even this is a slight distortion, because while Batman Begins cost $150 million, Superman Returns’ budget was $204 million — at the time, one of the most expensive movies ever made. Lump in the development costs of previous aborted Superman films (which Hollywood accounting does) and you get closer to $270 million — a figure that, even today, would put it in the top five most expensive movies ever made.

All of that was ten years ago now, since when plans for a sequel have been abandoned, the character has had a reboot, and kicked off a shared universe with a Batman co-starring sequel, too. With all that behind us, is Superman Returns’ poor reputation actually deserved? I’ve never got round to seeing it, so had no horse in the “it’s misunderstood” / “it’s deservedly derided” race; but today is the 10th anniversary of the film’s UK release, so what better time to finally join the debate?

The film begins in media res, with Clark Kent / Superman (Brandon Routh) returning home after five years away. The world has moved on: hot-shot reporter and Supes love interest Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has a fiancé (James Marsden) and a young son, and worst of all has penned an award-winning article called “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman”. Meanwhile, criminal mastermind Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) has escaped a jail sentence and is secretly setting about a nefarious plan…

Sitting down to Superman Returns cold, it feels like you’re watching a sequel — and in many respects, that’s what it is. Singer loves the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, quite rightly, and when offered the chance to make a new movie with the character essentially set out to make Superman III. Yes, Superman III already exists — and Superman IV, too — but no one likes them, so Singer’s decision to just completely ignore them wasn’t so daft. What was daft was making a sequel to a 26-year-old movie and assuming that the audience would be instantly familiar with the whole setup. Most cinemagoers won’t have done their homework and re-watched the older films before heading to the movies (because why would they?), so no wonder people felt confused and disappointed by what they were seeing. People nowadays complain about too many reboots and retellings of origin stories, often for good reason, but (a) sometimes a new telling is the right way to go, and (b) if you’re going to pick up a character mid-life, you still need to treat it as a new and standalone story if its immediate predecessor was released decades ago.

Really, Returns is one massive tribute to those ’70s and ’80s Superman films. Brandon Routh is essentially stuck doing a Christopher Reeve impression, both as bumbling Clark Kent and the Big Blue Boy Scout. Kevin Spacey is similarly in Gene Hackman mode, though as the film goes on he seems to increasingly relish the absurdity of what they’re doing. Old footage of Marlon Brando is resurrected to play Supes’ dad; the aesthetic is nostalgic, with a bright red-and-blue costume, classically-inspired sets, and sepia-tinged cinematography; there’s a focus on drama, with a sparing use of action sequences (at least until the climax); even the opening titles emulate the iconic whooshing blue names of the 1978 film. Maybe watched as part of a series with the earlier films it works as an homage or addendum, but as a work in its own right, viewed in isolation, it feels… misjudged.

That’s not helped by some aspects simply not working. I have nothing against Kate Bosworth, but she’s horribly miscast as Lois; so wrong it’s even hard to pin down exactly why it doesn’t work. The pace is wonky, with a long, slow start before a surfeit of action sequences blow in, at least one of them a complete aside from anything that’s going on, presumably just to gather some cool shots for the trailer (the bullet bouncing off Superman’s eye, for example). If the movie had begun with the airplane rescue scene — which is actually a great sequence, quite possibly the best Superman-related action scene ever filmed — perhaps it would’ve earnt the time to indulge in the Reeve-related posturing that actually takes up the first half-hour-or-so. I can imagine an edit of the movie that begins on that plane: just a bunch of journalists observing the press demonstration of the new shuttle technology, when suddenly, inexplicably, it fails — they’re all going to die — then Superman turns up completely out of nowhere and saves them. Then you have the credits, which are immediately followed by Lex’s whole journey to the Fortress of Solitude, and only then do you get in to the stuff with Superman only having just returned, wondering what his places is now, and so on. Maybe lose the scene of him basically stalking Lois’ new family, though.

You can see what Singer was going for with Superman Returns — a respectful, lightly modernised homage to some classic, beloved movies — but the benefit of hindsight makes it clear that really wasn’t a good idea. That said, it could’ve worked. If they’d put a little more effort into making it work as a semi-reboot rather than as a straight-up continuation, which is how it comes across, then maybe it would’ve been friendlier to newcomers. There are some excellent things in here — the tone mixes drama, humour, and life-or-death stakes in a way some blockbusters are losing sight of; Lex’s scheme is unusual and therefore interesting; the action scenes are thrilling; attempting to bring some character to the characters, rather than merely using them as pawns in those action sequences, almost lends the film additional depth — and I think it would’ve been a lot better liked if people felt they could get on board with it; if it wasn’t trying so hard to be something it’s not, which is a Superman movie starring Christopher Reeve made in 1983. For all Man of Steel’s faults, at least it tried to reintroduce the character, rather than pick up where it left off.

The final thing this all makes me think of is the forthcoming Marvel Spidey movie, Spider-Man: Homecoming. One wonders if Sony were inspired by Superman Returns’ perceived failure when they chose to reboot Spidey in 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man, rather than make Spider-Man 4 with a new cast and crew. That reboot decision was not popular, to say the least, with audiences thinking ten years (since the ‘first’ Spider-Man movie) was too little time to warrant retelling a familiar story. With that universe abandoned after an even-less-popular sequel, the next Spider-Man movie has to start again — but they’ve learnt their lesson and aren’t retelling the origin, instead diving in with Spider-Man already established as a hero. In media res again, then, but also (one hopes) with an awareness that this is to be the first movie in a series, not pretend to be the third or fourth. Another, better lesson learnt from Superman Returns, perhaps? Wouldn’t it be nice if Hollywood could learn from its mistakes more often…

3 out of 5

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)

2015 #33
Clint Eastwood | 146 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

Midnight in the Garden of Good and EvilSent to write “500 words on a Christmas party” in Savannah, Georgia, journalist John Kelso (John Cusack) instead finds himself covering a murder trial where he’s become friendly with the accused (Kevin Spacey).

Based on the bestselling book of a true story, Midnight in the Garden (as my TV’s EPG would have it) benefits from that reality to guide it through the quirky locals and unusual turns of its true-crime plot — there’s no doubt that Spacey killed the man, but the exact circumstances of the act are disputed. There’s been some movieisation in the telling of the events (the shooting happened in May; there were four trials, here condensed to one; a romantic subplot for Kelso is a (clichéd) addition), but the sense that enough of the truth remains keeps the film inherently captivating.

That’s handy for the film, which almost leans on the “it’s all true!” angle as a crutch to help the viewer through its own production. Eastwood’s direction might kindly be described as “workmanlike” — it’s strikingly unremarkable. Cusack is as blank as he ever seems to be (have I missed his Good Films that once marked him out? I say “once” because he’s only a leading man in shit no one notices these days). He’s fine, just borderline unnoticeable, which is why the romance subplot feels so misplaced — he’s an audience cipher to access this interesting location and set of events, not a character in his own right. Apparently Ed Norton turned down the role — now he might’ve brought some personality to it. Spacey is worth watching, at least.

What's in the jar? WHAT'S IN THE JAR?Like many an “adapted from a bestseller!” movies, I guess Midnight in the Garden was a big deal in its day that’s faded to semi-obscurity since (see: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, increasingly The Da Vinci Code, and on and on). It’s no forgotten masterpiece, but has enough going for it to merit a rediscovery by the right people who’ll enjoy it. Like me. For that, much thanks to Mike at Films on the Box, whose insightful review I naturally recommend.

4 out of 5

Inseparable (2011)

2014 #68
Dayyan Eng | 97 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | China / English & Mandarin | 15 / PG-13

InseparableI’m a great advocate of tonally-mismatched films. When others are moaning that there’s too much darkness mixed in with their light fluffy film, I’m the one saying, “um, guys, have you ever lived in, y’know, real life?” Which probably explains why most of the internet reacts with anything between ambivalence and hatred towards Inseparable, whereas I really enjoyed it.

The film opens with office drone Li (Daniel Wu) trying to hang himself, when he’s interrupted by his new American neighbour (Kevin Spacey). From there the pair form a strange friendship, with Spacey encouraging his conservative new friend to open up and be a bit freer — which, eventually, leads them to don funny outfits and set out to fight crime.

Yep, this is a “real-life superhero” movie… but only a little bit. If you’re searching for a comparison, it’s more Super than Kick-Ass; but even then it’s only a small part of the movie, just an element that sells well, hence its prominence on posters. At the risk of spoilers, a closer comparison would be A Beautiful Mind. Indeed, it wouldn’t be unfair to summarise the tone and content as “A Beautiful Mind meets Super”.

Pre-superClearly this will not be to everyone’s taste. Even at just over an hour-and-a-half it’s sometimes a little draggy, and the mishmash of kooky comedy with serious themes — not only suicide, but Li’s faltering marriage and the reasons for that — will turn some off. Anyone who likes their superhero entertainments to be more po-faced won’t be best pleased, either.

All those things actively work for me, though. Inseparable may be imperfect, and has possibly only got Western attention as the first Chinese film to count an American star among its leads, but I’m glad it made that transition. It’s entertaining, perhaps thought-provoking, and if not a noteworthy entry into the “real-life superhero” subgenre (due to the minimising of that element), it is a worthwhile presence in a subgenre that can’t be named because it gives away the twist that’s a defining feature of that subgenre. It’s certainly less glum than A Beautiful Mind, anyway.

4 out of 5

Se7en (1995)

2011 #14a
David Fincher | 127 mins | Blu-ray | 18 / R

Se7enI usually say that Se7en is my favourite film.

I don’t know if it’s just a recent thing, but with the proliferation of online “profiles” thanks to Facebook and, long before that, forums and various other websites*, it feels like we’re asked such questions on a regular basis these days, never mind as a go-to topic when conversation is struggling. So when people or websites inevitably ask what is your favourite film, they expect you to have one. I don’t think they like it if you begin to list 20, or 30, or… So I say Se7en.

This once led to me doing a presentation on the film; specifically, on Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay. It went quite well and I was going to use the notes as the basis for at least some of this review — I’m sure there was something interesting in them. I even listened to one of the commentaries (it has four) to glean extra info (in over a decade of buying DVDs now, I’ve only listened to about ten commentaries). Unfortunately the notes are lost to a harddrive buried deep in a box somewhere, or a hardcopy buried deep in old notes goodness knows where, so that’ll have to wait for another day. I just wanted you to know you were missing out. (Don’t get too upset — I’m sure it wasn’t that good.)

As with almost all films I love, be they ones I’ve held dear for years or newly discovered as part of 100 Films’ primary thread, I’m not sure where to begin praising it. Perhaps the cinematography, an aspect Fincher put a lot of work into both originally and then again to make it look right on the DVD re-release. This may well be because the film is incredibly dark. SlothBlack seems to be its default position — everything else is cut out of the darkness with as little light as possible. Often backgrounds and locations are better lit than foregrounds or actors, making the viewer focus on silhouettes with minimal light offering splashes of detail. Even the scenes that occur at daytime (most, anyway) do so in the middle of ferocious, ceaseless rain that ensures it never gets too bright.

It’s only appropriate, because the story is pretty much as black as they come. For those who’ve made it this far without finding out, Se7en concerns the police investigation into a series of murders themed around the seven deadly sins. In case you haven’t seen it, I shan’t outline any examples, but none are pretty. The worst, in my opinion, is Lust. However many times you see the film, that segment doesn’t get any easier to watch. It’s a three-way combination of an incredible, haunting performance by Leland Orser (in just one short scene); a photograph of the implement, which we see for mere seconds; and the moment when the film that was prepared to show us the ‘living corpse’ of Sloth victim Victor refuses to show us a body. Since the last time I watched Se7en I have seenLust all but one of the Saw films, the uncut Witchfinder General, and various other gory horrors like Flesh for Frankenstein, but none are as gruesomely affecting as the Lust crime.

I imagine it’s contextual. Se7en is, in its way, quite heavily stylised — “dark”, as I discussed — but it’s done so in a very grounded way. To get film studies-y about it, we are asked to believe this is the real world and a plausible series of events are occurring in it. Films like the Saw series, however, clearly exist in a horror movie version of the world (however much some of the filmmakers may be under the impression that it’s a series of grounded thrillers). You view Saw with a horror movie mindset, expecting extreme situations and extreme special effects-driven gore; Se7en, even with its cruel and unusual murders, is always a police thriller. The frame of reference — plus the quality of writing, direction and acting — is what makes Lust so much more affecting.

The acting is brilliant, subtler than some might expect or be aware of initially. To take one example, look at the scene in the bar that (coincidentally) follows Lust. Detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) discuss, more-or-less, Somerset’s reasons for retiring. He sets out his stall, his thoughts and reasons, well rehearsed from telling others and himself. Greed, GluttonyMills delivers his riposte with greater hyperbole — of course, because that’s the character — perhaps bedded in a form of naivety and idealism, ending with a repetitious “I do not agree. I do not.” Then we see Freeman’s face, completely static, but you can read in it everything you need to — his anger at Mills for making him realise that it’s all a lie he’s been telling himself, and anger at himself for believing the lie. That’s one scene; Freeman is incredible throughout.

For all the darkness, there’s also a nice vein of humour. Not too much, not a desperate attempt to compensate, but a well-judged amount. One of my favourite comic moments in any serious film (“this isn’t even my desk”); the vibrating home; “if I shaved off a nipple…” From an objective point of view it helps us believe in and, more importantly, like the characters. Which is, really, all in aid of one thing:

The famous ending. It’s a twist, yes, but it’s more than that; and it’s mainly the performances that sell it. The twist, first, is perfectly played. We never see what’s in the box; we’re never even told; but we absolutely, positively, unquestionably know what’s in there, as surely as if we were Somerset seeing it with his own eyes. Even once you know what’s coming, though, it’s what follows the twist that’s incredible: three men in a field, three impeccable performances that bring everything we’ve spent two hours watching to a perfect head. Envy, WrathThis is where liking the characters pays too, because we are on Somerset’s side and we’re on Mills’ side and we agree with both and disagree with both and don’t necessarily know who’s right or what to do or what we would do. I can spend the whole film anticipating this scene, knowing exactly what will happen in it, how great a piece of filmmaking it will be, yet it still makes my hair stand on end.

Some would claim that Se7en is no more than a standard murder thriller with a stock mismatched pair of detectives. In some respects they’re right, but in enough respects they’re wrong. There’s a killer high concept behind the crimes, for one thing, but it’s really the execution of the film, not the victims, that makes it so much more. It’s in the performances, the way those stock characters are written, their subplots, the story’s pace, the cinematography, the music, individual sequences like Somerset in the library or the climax that (arguably, of course) rise not only to the top of the genre but to the top of the very medium of film itself. There’s so much more; this review only scratches the surface. Se7en transcends its limitations in any one area by becoming far more than the sum of its exemplary parts.

PrideThe quality of a crime thriller is often so tied to its mystery that the film can only sustain so many viewings — sometimes, only one — before you know it too well. I have seen Se7en at least seven times now, which for me is a lot — a helluva lot, even — and yet I still get something from it every time. That’s a rarity, that’s a reason to love it, and that is why it may well be my favourite film.

5 out of 5

I watched Se7en as part of a David Fincher Week. Read my thoughts on all his films to date here.

* All these people who attribute such things to Facebook, usually in a critical way, are just a bit behind. (That’s a personal bugbear dealt with, then.) ^