Hope or despair: which do we choose?

This is the first in a what I hope will be a regular series where I rewatch a movie I’ve seen before and liked, and write about it from a personal perspecitve. I would give the series a cool name, but I haven’t come up with one yet … 

Jaws – a film that is often credited with launching what we now know as the summer blockbuster phenomenon – is justly famous for many things. It’s a masterpiece of slowly building fear, in part because the shark itself is unseen by the viewer for a long, long time. David Fincher’s 1994 serial killer thriller Se7en (Seven) takes inspiration from Spielberg’s game-changer in that respect; we don’t see the face of the killer until 30 minutes before the film’s end, at a moment of revelation of his own choosing. Neither do we see the murders take place; in the film’s memorable rain-sodden foot chase we only see his back; his face remains out of focus even when he’s pointing a gun in Brad Pitt’s face, deciding his fate. David Fincher knows what most good horror films and thrillers have made apparent over the years: the unseen is more threatening and frightening than the known.

Rewatching this film for the first time in years in 2019, I’m struck especially by how normal the abnormal events it portrays are made to seem. A serial killer who bases his work on the seven deadly sins of Christian tradition is nothing especially original; religious references are a familiar serial killer trope. Fincher places this killing spree in the hands of an apparently ordinary figure – one who goes by the name of John Doe (the name given by American police to an unidentified deceased male). As John Doe himself says, as the film’s unforgettable ending hoves into view: “I’m not special; I’ve never been exceptional … it’s more comfortable for you to label me insane”.

seven poster

 

It’s dangerous to quote the words of a killer as if they contain some kind of truthfulness, but this is the heart of the film: that evil is ubiquitous; it’s in all of us. In each of the serial killer’s victims, in the police chasing him, in the killer himself. In an age where the mass shootings that still stalk America are so routinely passed off as committed by someone with ‘mental health problems’, personal responsibility is avoided. The truth is we’re all to blame; Se7en holds a mirror up to us, and it’s not a pleasant sight. To summarise what John Doe says near the conclusion, we tolerate sin in ourselves and others because it’s normal. It’s this, it seems, that as the credits roll and those involved are left to live with the terrible consequences of their actions, that drives Morgan Freeman to utter the film’s final words in voice over: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” It’s a brutal way to leave the story, and one which the makers of the film fought the studio to keep in, and no less powerful for it; though now, having seen many more films than I had on seeing Se7en in the cinema, it seemed a tad too much of tell as opposed to show.

This seems bleak – and it is, if we conclude that the fight of which Hemingway is speaking is fruitless. For those who believe following Jesus is worthwhile and eternally meaningful, it’s a profoundly hopeful place to be; the world may not be as fine a place, as was intended; but there is a better way; and that better way will, eventually, be seen by all.

It is a battle, though, and in the meantime many suffer. As long as any of us – like John Doe in this film – take matters in to our hands, take the judging as something for us to execute, then there will be casualties. Not least ourselves, but also those unfortunate enough to be in our orbit.

All of which leads us to the Kevin Spacey question. With the revelations about his alleged sexual harassments and assaults, the question remains: should we watch his films? I have no easy answer here. I have been bullied to the point of suicide by someone who used to speak on big conference stages; I know how painful it was to see that person lauded by thousands when I knew different; I have forgiven the person, but still my stomach lurches with nausea and I’m wracked with anxiety if I see his name alluded to in a social media feed. I was sexually and physically abused as an adult by an adult; if I were to see her in a public role, it would be very hard to take. So I argue that Spacey’s victims must be given much consideration here; I would want the same for myself. With that in mind, I rewatched Se7en for the first time since these allegations came out. As I reflected on the film’s themes of the ubiquity of evil I found myself asking uncomfortable questions. If Spacey’s past work is not to be considered any more; if my bully’s speaking is no longer to be listened to; if my abuser is never to have a relationship … then what of me? I have not done any of these things – but if I believe sin and evil are ubiquitous (and I do), then that means I’m as guilty of sin as anyone else. I hope I own my sins and seek forgiveness, in large part through the regular discipline of confession; but I also know I am prone to err. Let he who is without sin …

I do not have an answer, at least not yet. Certainly it seems to me that Spacey, and those like him, should not be widely spoken of or employed in the public eye – at the very least until fault has been admitted, responsibility taken and justice served. Fittingly for this film, for now I remain with this tension unresolved.

What remains true is that it’s still a beautifully constructed, chilling and gripping thriller that haunts and shocks even after all these years; even when I know the point to which the story is heading. More culturally significant films still lay ahead of Fincher, not least Fight Club; many would cite Zodiac (2006) as his best film; The Social Network (2010) tells at least part of the story of one of the era’s dominant themes. Of course, we don’t know what more is to come from him. Se7en sets the template for his best work: morally complex, darkly thrilling, and directed with a flair that fits the story and the theme. If not quite as dynamic as I remember, it’s still a film to be reckoned with, that ultimately asks us to choose between despair and hope.

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The Men Who Stare At Goats: End as you mean to go on

It probably shouldn’t be the case, but a film’s ending is really it’s beginning. It’s the last thing in your mind when you leave the cinema; so a satisfying ending if likely to define an audience’s response to a film. Similarly  a poor one. One of the most famous examples of this is the original cinema release of Bladerunner. This film was always going to divide audiences, with its dark palette, moody atmosphere and serious themes for a sci-fi story with the star of Star Wars. Some responded well to what they saw, though – struck by the film’s seriousness, skill and depth…until a tacked on ending under studio pressure, that undermined much of went before with a happy and upbeat conclusion. It’s taken 25 years to fully fix that, with a Director’s Cut that wasn’t really, and a Final Cut that probably is. With a suitable ending in place, it stands clearly as the masterpiece it undoubtedly is. A film of Bladerunner‘s quality shouldn’t have suffered so much over its last few seconds; but it did, hampered for years by a few misjudged seconds (as well as the needless narration).

The Men Who Stare At Goats is no Bladerunner, but it shares a similar problem with its ending. Its based on a non-fiction book, about the ‘secret’ psychic spy division of the US army. The unit’s story is told in flashback, as Ewan McGregor’s journalist accompanies George Clooney’s army man into modern-day Iraq – it’s a device that’s not in the book, understandably added in to give the film narrative momentum. The flashbacks tend to work better; the road movie plot is unconvincing and could have been done more simply and effectively. There is, though, a lovely light comic tone that carries the film along over the many flaws along the way. Some truly hilarious moments will live a long time in the memory – Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey and Ewan McGregor are all engaging presences. This, though, is Clooney’s film, and his pitch perfect portrayal is funny, skeptical, satirical and kindly all at the same time. He is truly a master of his craft; there are few contemporary actors capable of this kind of role.

All of which makes the ending all the more disappointing. Until the last two minutes, the narrative flaws are largely ignorable thanks to the film’s good-nature, fine performances and well-paced laughs.  Up until the end, the viewer’s given just enough to make you understand why people can fall for the nonsense of psychic spies; to see that coincidences can sometimes look like more than that. The film’s conclusion, though, is a ludicrously miss-judged attempt at feel-good up-lift; it’s no less than an insult to audience intelligence and devalues so much good that’s gone before. It’s an attempt at joyful wonder, ignoring that true wonder is about undeserved grace and favour and beauty rather than achieving something patently impossible.

It could be argued that such an ending allows a more honest view of the film’s flaws; that’s understandable, but unfair. See it, but close your eyes and shut your ears for the last minute; that way you’ll walk out laughing at a flawed but entertaining comedy. If not, you’ll just feel let down.