Monday, March 23, 2015
Putting the "list" in "miserablist"! (or, the films of David Fincher ranked, no. 3)
For going on twenty years now—my how time flies—David Fincher has been our preeminent auteur of gross, depressing tales of murder and mayhem. Almost uniquely, Fincher has mastered a high-wire balancing act in the thriller genre, crafting films that are formally pristine, morally bracing, thematically insidious, emotionally devastating, and—most important of all—highly entertaining. Though chiefly noted for this selfsame prediliction toward the pleasantly unpleasant, Fincher has tried his hand at other things, too—one time it was good, one time it was the worst thing ever. On this episode: murder, murder, murder, murder, murder, murder, and murder (with about five, ten minutes of what I would feel comfortable calling mayhem).
Spoiler alert: I think we all know what's in the box
Some years after the implied nuclear war, a wave of religiously-inspired murder grips The City. The stage is set for Detectives William Somerset and David Mills to have personality clashes while misunderstanding the roles they have to play in the killer's master plan.
It's not "Se7en." Just like it's not the social network because its title's written in lower case in the logo. Just like it's not Zodiac, with a crosshairs through the fucking "O." Just like it's not—well, fine. I guess it is "Alien³." But it shouldn't be.
Anyway, despite contemporary promotional materials (including a logo) that use a "V" and the profound stupidity of the very idea, somehow between 1995 and now Seven became Sesevenen, and this is the most embarrassingly lame thing to happen in David Fincher's whole career, except for all of Benjamin Button.
Of course, none of this has anything to do with the film's quality, which is extraordinarily high.
Everyone would be happier if we could legitimately call Seven David Fincher's first film, including David Fincher. It is certainly his first good one, and the first where he got to do what he wanted, without undue studio interference, although he nearly didn't. The story goes that when New Line Cinema sent him Andrew Kevin Walker's script, they accidentally sent him a rejected draft, and the ending—the part New Line demanded Walker change—was the part Fincher liked most of all. Fincher was promised that he could use it; then higher-ups threatened to renege. Given that the discovery of the head in a box is Seven's most beloved moment, one wonders if Seven would have been so hugely successful without it. One wonders further if an underperforming second feature, butchered by studio hacks like his first, might have broken the already-immiserated young director. We can thank Seven's leads, Morgan Freeman (Somerset) and Brad Pitt (Mills), that he wasn't tested. They backed Fincher; Walker's ending was preserved; everybody was happy. Well, except for the test audiences, who had no idea what they were in for when they sat down to watch the new movie with the stars of Driving Miss Daisy and Legends of the Fall. After the test screening, someone approached Fincher and consoled him: "Don't be depressed. You'll probably get another job."
Seven found its natural audience, but those first reactions aren't surprising. Seven is routinely described as one of the darkest, bleakest American films ever made. Of all Fincher's work, Seven is the only one that really earns that epithet, "nihilistic." Walker's script doesn't mince words—nearly every conversation that isn't raw exposition is dedicated to the proposition that the world is a meaningless place, where the absence of God is a fact and where the goodness that persists only throws the evil into even sharper relief. It's this pointlessness that drives John Doe. His overcomplicated crimes are more akin to political terrorism than conventional serial killing, and are tantamount to an act of prayer. Mills, the young detective, is brutal and lawless in his idealism and his stupidity alike. Meanwhile, our hero Somerset shrugs and says, "indifference is a solution." The film agrees—his final decision, to stay in this wretched place and keep fighting the good fight, is more like a senseless personal tragedy than any noble sacrifice.
Even with dauntless old Freeman finding all the right details to bring his detective to life, Walker's script would have been just too oppressively blatant, if the film weren't built from the ground up to support it. But Seven turns the vice of its script's obviousness into a virtue, in one of the most totalistic works of mise-en-scene ever presented. From before the NIN music video of its opening credits (which everyone talks about) to the unnerving backwards crawl of its closing credits (which are not talked about enough), there's not one misstep in Fincher's audiovisual scheme.
Seven takes place in an unnamed City, played by the anonymous parts of LA. Though I joke, The City is only not a science-fiction location because the script doesn't state so outright. "Post-apocalyptic" gives it too much credit; it's undergoing its apocalypse right now in slow motion. It reflects the revelation of John Doe as well as Somerset's own dead-eyed perspective. Arthur Max' production design takes its cues from from Norman Reynolds' work with Fincher in Alien 3, naturally, as well as Blade Runner, with a constant torrent of acidic rain slowly dissolving human civilization. There's Texas Chainsaw in here, too, and of course some Silence of the Lambs, plus grace notes from the 70s/80s-era urban blight movement (including, notably, Maniac). But in the combination of its influences and its innovations, Max's design becomes something that was, then, entirely new. The unpleasantness of the design is leavened rarely: only one set, the library, has any beauty beyond well-appointed degradation, but it's a counterpoint that makes everything else feel even more disgusting. Meanwhile, Darius Khondji's bleach bypass cinematography presents itself as a master class in how a film can evoke misery with nothing more than how it reproduces the light. And while I can't help but wonder what Fincher's current music team of Reznor and Ross might have done with Seven were it made today, Howard Shore's no slouch. Finally, Fincher's own camera choices are as perfect as they've ever been in capturing the violence inherent to Seven's world.
So this is Fincher's most grotesquely stylish film. It's as complete and perfect a representation of truly cosmic decay as anyone has ever accomplished. Thus it was inevitable that it would be ripped off. Seven's best-behaved children include Saw—a mostly successful remake of Seven's surfaces without its substance—and True Detective—a mostly successful effort to recapitulate both—but every gross cop show and horror-noir since 1995 owes Seven a profound debt. Nonetheless, Seven remains unique. Any movie can be nasty; very few have realized a physical representation of the yearning of Purgatory placed right alongside the hopelessness of Hell.
Seven follows in the footsteps of Silence in its genre-mixing, but it does so with less mercy—Doe isn't as huggable as Hannibal Lecter. Even so, Seven is, like Silence, a movie about a supervillain. The crucial difference is that while we are pretty much explicitly encouraged to enjoy Lecter as a Universal Monster, Seven offers a killer whose methods are beyond the pale but whose reactionary madness rings terrifyingly true. Yet in the person of Kevin Spacey's Doe, Seven accomplishes without contradiction all the unbearable tension of facing Buffalo Bill alone in the dark with all the bombast of watching Hannibal. Thus a movie that should be depressing is transformed, through the genre alchemy that remains Fincher's greatest talent, into one of the single most rewatchable movies of its decade. It is mysterious how Fincher manages to make a movie that is both implacably cruel yet so full of juvenile excitement for its subject matter, and is also not offensive in this combination. Perhaps it's Fincher's refusal to ever wink, even when the kills become so cartoonishly baroque they unavoidably pass into the realm of the slasher-movie rad. If there's even one solitary spark of knowing irony, it's contained in a thudding joke, Doe's aside that the dead dog was the work of someone else.
Seven is far more of a horror movie than any grim cop drama, then, and should be treated as such. Still, it's less bloody than its reputation as the father of torture porn suggests, even less bloody than it feels—only one person ever dies onscreen. Seven's horror is largely atmosphere and implication (the interrogation that results from the discovery of the Lust victim is awfully upsetting), and even when it takes the direct approach, it's the static horror of preexisting corpses. Of course, it breaks its own rules, just that one time, to achieve one of horror's best-earned jump scares—and it's a sequence that loses its effectiveness on rewatch, like all jump scares must, but back in 1995, Sloth sent all of us right through the roof. It's ultimately all in good fun, but never ineffective: we are treated to scene after scene of Somerset and Mills arriving at crime scenes with an unerring sense of bad timing, even when they identify the killer and track him down, and this underlines the real horror, which is that evil is much, much stronger than our pitiful heroes ever could be.
So far I've been describing a perfect film. Seven is tantalizingly close, but all films have their issues, and Seven is no different. I alluded to one already: everything is on John Doe's schedule. It's not a problem that Seven is frankly preposterous—supervillain tales need not be grounded in total plausibility—but we have to concede that Seven stretches even the most liberal definition of "believable." More nettlesome still is that Doe's scheme is conceptually flawed. He wishes to poetically punish the seven deadly sins—fair enough. Thus, Gluttony eats himself to death, Lust is fucked to death, etc. Meanwhile, two victims (Pride and Wrath) are not executed, but given Jigsaw-esque tests of character instead. Hey, what gives, John?
We can also nitpick a plot that's as inelegant as the craft is flawless. Seven is awfully willing to abandon narrative discipline. The prime example is Somerset's bibliohpilia, which starts as an examination of his buried humanism before it turns into a warrantless search thanks to the deus ex machina of a fictional FBI library monitoring program. I'd reckon John Doe already owned a copy of The Divine Comedy. (My dad owns a copy of The Divine Comedy.) When you consider how exceedingly little medieval Catholicism actually has to do with Seven—it lends some iconography, no more—this whole sequence is an excuse for two things only: firstly, to keep driving events forward, which is good; and secondly, to deepen the detectives' volatile dynamic, which is maybe less good.
That brings us to the last and the biggest problem with Seven, which is Brad Pitt. Mystifyingly, Pitt's often praised for his turn as David Mills. True: he is, at a base level, functional in the role. He has memorized his lines and stage directions. He generally conveys something like the correct emotions in most scenes. But this Brad Pitt truly would eat your sandwich, going off the rails early and often, without hinting that he's even heard of "modulation" before. The result is a character who is written as immature, but is played by Pitt as a literal child. Mills' temper tantrum over what amounts to a homework assignment would be the nadir of almost any film, let alone one as good as Seven. In Pitt's defense, he has good chemistry with Freeman—in fact, better than he has any right to have, given how much time Mills spends chafing. Perhaps the love for Pitt's performance comes from Seven's climax. Even there, it's Fincher's camera and editing doing the heaviest lifting. (Not to mention Spacey's own immaculate choices, his rising tide lifting everybody's boat, even Freeman's. John Doe really did have the upper hand—with The Usual Suspects already under his belt, 1995 was Spacey's miraculous year.) Thankfully, when Pitt reunited with Fincher in 1999, he'd be almost unrecognizably good.
Anyway, these amount to minor foibles, rather than deadly sins (ha ha). Seven was Fincher announcing to the world that henceforward he would be the person to go to, if you wanted cinematic murder done right. Seven might be the consensus pick for his single best work. While my own ranking of his work runs decisively toward the idiosyncratic—as we'll see soon—I don't think he surpassed himself for fifteen more years. Indeed, if Seven was his best film—hell, even if it were his only good film—it's good enough that Fincher would still have a career to be proud of.
David Fincher's miserable list, by year:
Alien 3 (1992)
The Game (1997)
Fight Club (1999)
Panic Room (2002)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
The Social Network (2010)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Gone Girl (2014)
David Fincher's miserable list, by rank:
10. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
9. Alien 3 (1992)
8. Panic Room (2002)
7. The Game (1997)
6. The Social Network (2010)
5. Zodiac (2007)
4. Fight Club (1999)
3. Seven (1995)
2. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
1. Gone Girl (2014)