On Re-Watching Se7en

Se7en is a famously polarizing movie: the decay and bleakness of the surroundings, the bodies, the blade dildo, the head in a box. And, seeing that movie again, these landmarks are all present and correct; familiar, inevitable, but still with a power to disturb.

(Incidentally, I had a small epiphany when watching the movie this time around: you know how the city is never mentioned by name? I know why: it’s Gotham City without Batman. Se7en is a superhero movie about what happens when Gotham exists but there is no superhero. Discuss.)

Anyway, the trauma. When you’ve seen a movie a few times, especially a movie you love (and why, unless you’re a parent watching the Little Mermaid for the 10th time that week, would you watch a movie you didn’t love multiple times?), the seams start to show. The structure of the piece becomes more evident because you’re not surprised by the twists anymore.

And that’s part of what happened to me this time. I saw a very different movie. Se7en is not, now, a police procedural, or a whodunnit (because they never crack the case themselves), or even a horror movie…

When all that is swept to one side, what’s left is the essence. Ultimately, Se7en is a meditation on hope – and what it’s like to have that hope most brutally smashed and ground into the earth. And, as such, it’s now for me an almost unbearably sad experience.

From the beginning, Detective Somerset is a man who has given up. This isn’t a movie about how this brilliant man came to give up on his city; that ship has sailed. When we meet him, he has removed himself from the city in mind and spirit – and now he’s ready to remove himself in body too. Just one more week – seven days and done.

When he’s not brilliantly solving crime cases, he’s spending nights at the library or drowning out the noises of the world with a metronome and hard-headed concentration, just so he can sleep. He hates the city, doesn’t understand the people. He wants nothing but to finally escape.

So, he is completely flummoxed by Mills – young, ambitious – who volunteered to be a cop here. Mills is brash and pushy and arrogant, the cliché contrast to the older, wiser man he is forced to odd-couple with, but just for a week. Mills has one more trait that Somerset can’t understand: he has hope.

His wife Tracy doesn’t share his optimism, but he thinks by sheer force of will he can change her mind, change Somerset’s mind, and make Gotham clean again.

Mills is tragic. He has nothing to offer this world except optimism. His only shield against the horrors to come is his useless, ill-considered hope.

And that’s what makes one apparently throw-away scene so pivotal: the point on which the whole movie turns. A scene so by-the-numbers and brief that I couldn’t recall it from all my other viewings of the movie. But now, this time, with the shocks and twists and fireworks stripped away, this is the emotional heart-wrench of the movie, the firm piece of ground on which the emotional devastation rests. This is the scene to bring a tear to a hard movie-watcher’s eye.

Here, Somerset is being Somerset in a bar – all nihilist emptiness and denying life’s meaning. Mills is as Mills as he can possibly be.

Somerset says: “You know, this isn’t going to have a happy ending.”

So, you know, consider yourself warned.

Mills’ extended reply (is this his longest speech in the movie?): “You want me to agree with you. And you want me to say, ‘Yeah yeah, you’re right, it’s all fucked up, we should all go live in a fucking log cabin’, but I won’t. I don’t agree with you. I can’t.”

And the look that Somerset gives Mills – a long, sad realisation that his young friend is heading for a fall, as if he knows what I know, sitting there in the dark, watching the movie for the fifth or sixth time – is maybe the saddest single facial expression ever committed to celluloid.

In the end, after that scene, the movie goes to extraordinary lengths to teach Mills the truth of Somerset’s words. The ending is about as far from happy as you can go – all the death and moral pollution Mills faced every day wasn’t enough to get to him. He had to have an up-close, personal, and very direct lesson. His hope was strong and apparently resilient, but by the end of the movie, it is forever lost. And there is nothing more tragic than that.

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