From The Parallax Review Vaults: Se7en (1995)

The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Se7en was for the “Academy of the Overrated” column of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

It happens to everyone: You spend weeks listening to friends, coworkers, family members, and even film critics rave about one particular movie, but you’re just not interested. Finally, months after its release, you sit down to watch it on DVD or cable, and when the end credits roll, you wonder what all the fuss was about. The Academy of the Overrated examines the strengths and weaknesses of these films in order to understand why everyone loved them but us.

It’s easy to understand the stellar reputation of Se7en. On the surface, it’s a good movie. The cinematography by Darius Khondji is suitably dark and shadowy, the work by the production and set designers is impeccable, the special makeup effects by Rob Bottin are grotesque and uncomfortably realistic. All of this helps the film to look fantastic when it could have very well just come off as shoddy and under-lit. This is without even taking into account the excellent editing by Richard Francis-Bruce. If you’ll notice, the only people I’m singling out for praise are the technicians responsible for the nuts and bolts portion of putting together a film. Don’t get me wrong, the contributions of the people who fill these jobs are always important and can help elevate a so-so film to something greater than itself. The problem with Se7en lies in the fact that it’s all surface, no feeling.

The plot of the film is well known, so I don’t feel any need to offer up a synopsis. I will just assume if you’re reading this, you’ve seen the movie. In other words, spoilers lie ahead.

The script by Andrew Kevin Walker is a competent piece of police procedural writing. I will never argue that point. But when the dialogue between Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) turns to philosophical or theological matters, everything grinds to a halt. The ideas espoused are shallow and redundant to everything that the audience has already been shown. While the scenes between Somerset and Mills are bad enough, the small amount of momentum the film gains in the third act is undermined by an extremely long dialogue scene between the detectives and serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey). As Doe relates his half-assed theories regarding “God’s work,” Somerset and Mills debate his logic, trying to poke holes in his theories. The point of the scene is to establish Doe as a brilliant but insane psychopath and to show Somerset is his intellectual equal. Poor Mills is summed up in this exchange as the cocky, inexperienced, and not-bright-enough rookie, constantly letting Doe drive him to the point of yelling for no good reason. The only problem is that Doe is just crazy. His plan, while ambitious, is the stuff of ludicrous serial killer thrillers, and his theological ideas are just the same rambling craziness that has been applied to movie serial killers for decades. It’s just rambling craziness that’s being delivered by a good actor instead of a cut-rate performer in a Silence of the Lambs ripoff. The fact that Somerset has to jump through so many hoops to come up with a successful counterargument to just one of Doe’s insane theories doesn’t exactly bode well for his intellect.

But then, Somerset’s not really a character who possesses an extremely keen intellect. He’s not even a character. A character would imply some depth beyond what is seen. Like everyone else in the film, he’s an archetype. More specifically, Somerset is the jaded veteran who has tired of the overwhelming angst that comes with the job. Mills is the aforementioned cocky rookie in over his head. Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), Mills’s wife, is the neglected, emotionally fragile woman. R. Lee Ermey plays the hard-boiled police captain who thinks Somerset is a pain in the ass (while reluctantly acknowledging his brilliance). And, of course, John Doe is the crazy serial killer who has the lazy explanation of “God told me to do it.” None of these archetypes ever become characters with even two dimensions. They are merely vessels to move the plot along from one grisly murder scene to the next. This fact is masked somewhat by the quality of the acting on display. Freeman and Ermey remain compelling, even when they’re reciting clichéd dialogue that has been spouted in crime movies going back to at least the The French Connection. Likewise, Paltrow manages to give a heartfelt performance in one of the most underwritten roles she’s ever had. Spacey brings his condescending creepiness along for good effect, succeeding in making John Doe seem believable for the briefest of moments.

Pitt is the only actor who was unable to make his role seem better than it was. As an actor, I’ve enjoyed watching Pitt mature over the years, becoming more confident and seeking out challenging roles. At this point, I consider him one of the very best actors on Hollywood’s A-list. But when Se7en came out, his performance was dictated solely by the material he had to work with. Saddled with the worst dialogue in the film and a role that was thankless at best, he turned to the single note of anger. Since the response of somebody who doesn’t understand something is to become angry, his choice was good enough for most of the film. Unfortunately, he’s given what should be an actor’s wet dream: An ending where he’s given the chance to play over-the-top grief accompanied by pure rage. But Pitt was unable to deliver in his key moment, reciting his lines like a whiny kid. The film’s ultra-downer ending was the only thing that set it apart from other procedurals of its time, and Pitt was unable to make it an effective moment.

As with Pitt, I’ve enjoyed watching director David Fincher hone and perfect his skills over the last fifteen years. But even with the great crew and mostly good cast he put together, he never came up with an angle interesting enough to justify telling this particular story. He moves the story along fairly well until the dreaded dialogue scene between Somerset, Mills, and Doe. He also does a very good job at maintaining the film’s suffocating mood of misery and despair. But he is unable to get past the fact that the script is nothing but a series of clichés wrapped in a theme that can be summed up as, “The world is a horrible place where there is no justice.”

At best, Se7en is a solidly constructed serial killer thriller. It’s just as ridiculous as the pulpy serial killer thrillers that came before it — it just sports more impressive technical achievements. It’s always watchable, but never does it transcend its clichéd script or make the characters come to life. Its critical and commercial success confounds me to this day.

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