I haven’t done one of these in a while, and I remember enjoying writing them, so I thought it would be fun to revisit the Randomised series. You can read more examples here, but the gist of it is that I use a random number generator to select for me some images from a film and use those frames as a prompt for discussion of the film.
When I first saw David Fincher‘s Seven back in 1996, I disliked it quite a lot. It wasn’t just that it made me uncomfortable; I was an opinionated, contrarian filmgoer at the best of times, and seeing a packed house for a matinée screening lapping up the lurid details of such a fashionably grim movie wound me up. Dark was the new black. It felt like the film’s downbeat tone was all posturing: it wasn’t the product of a misanthropic worldview, but the shock tactics of a film-maker eager to buck every available trend of the genre thriller. More to the point, I was sick of serial killer films, fed up of hyperintelligent and meticulous murderers whose preternaturally effective and elaborate schemes, always perfectly executed, seemed more like the manoeuvrings not of believable killers but of self-satisfied screenwriters. The fascination with the process of killing someone was distasteful and dishonest, I believed, resulting in the ultimate ascension of Hannibal Lecter and Dexter to the status of righteous avengers picking off the scum of society (a reactionary fantasy that I still find wholly repellent). I still have some of these reservations, but after subsequent viewings, Seven has, to my mind, matured considerably (as, I hope, have I) into a compulsive and rich work that rewards close scrutiny and transcends any of its modish or exploitative genre-mates.I normally use three or four random frames from the film, but because it’s been a while, and because it seems appropriate, in this case, I’m working with seven. The randomiser has selected for me the numbers 24, 39, 54, 56, 67, 88, and 110. They’re a bit bunched up in the middle, and there’s nothing from the first fifth of the film, but that’s the nature of randomness, I suppose. Without further delay, let’s get started. I can’t be certain, since I’m writing this as I go, but I’m fairly sure that the following essay will contain spoilers….
Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is on the verge of retirement. That’s one of the stalest clichés of the detective genre, and a sure sign that he will not get the chance to go quietly and put his feet up. It signifies either that this is a tired and formulaic film, or a film that wants to examine the tropes and tics of the genre, to make us rethink them. As he leaves the office for the evening, Somerset gazes out of the window, and realises that he hasn’t fixed the city he has worked all of his professional life to serve and protect. Through the frame of the yellow-cab (although this might immediately suggest that the story is set in New York, it’s a composite, expressionistic cityscape of indeterminate location), he sees yet another crime scene. Medics or cops (they are hidden beneath plastic coats) crouch over a corpse, while a crowd of onlookers gathers round to get a glimpse of death. They are only briefly glimpsed (like so many of the film’s horrors) as the car drives by, but you can see that they are lit from above, picking out individual faces like an old Dutch group portrait, even as the shot makes them a serried mass, a symbolic populace of reprehensible gawkers, each of them a potential target of the serial killer: each of them could, equally, be that killer, who is defined by his everyman invisibility. Often Somerset is in a car, scanning at a shielded remove the place where he lives and works, but over which he has little control. The film will end with a car departing, too. The mobile bubble allows the observer to move through the city in relative safety – our detective protagonists are rarely seen outdoors until the film’s climax. One of the film’s moral dilemmas concerns whether or not we should stop and intervene in the crimes we say every day, from violence to a lack of civility and respect, or whether we should just “drive by” and keep to ourselves.
The colour palette of Seven is carefully controlled; just take a look at the other images in this selection. Whole scenes are often dominated by slate grey or deep brown, with pockets of darkness eating up large portions of the frame. But there are moments of relief, as in the dinner scene where Somerset is the guest of Mills (Brad Pitt) and his wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow). The colours are warmer, the lighting soft. These fleeting moments of domestic safety are important in establishing how the city throngs and oppresses the people who want to live in it and do good. Morgan Freeman is seen here, talking to the offscreen Pitt seated to his left. The illumination is low (especially given that they’re poring over documents and photographs), but relatively comforting. Somerset’s presence onscreen provides an anchor of wisdom, dignity and stolid, if resigned, calm amidst the malevolence that prevails outside. It has become traditional to make the detective a dishevelled, stubbly, disintegrating mess, compromised by his own unethical behaviour in the investigation of a case. Somerset bucks that trend by remaining wholly removed from the degradation he witnesses, and the empathic pain he feels as a result. This scene is taking place at the end of a long working day. Bogart would have been chain-smoking and on his umpteenth bourbon by now. Somerset hasn’t even loosened his tie.
Sobering news about the “Sloth” victim, delivered by a white-coated medical professional. The simple set-up, an exchange of dialogue by men in outfits that unfussily denote their generic position in the drama (from left-to-right: gumshoe, physician, maverick cop), belies the barely imaginable horror of what is being discussed. Although Seven makes you feel as though you’ve seen a torrent of filth and gore, you’ve invented most of it in your own mind, extrapolating imaginings of protracted torture from the evidence left at the crime scene. The shock in this case has been an uncanny one: a “living corpse”, pushing the film into baroque levels of punishment and physical abuse. Knowing that the victim of this most extruded of murders is just offscreen, unseen and degrading, is made more unnerving by seeing it through the professional responses of the people who have to look at this stuff for a living. For me, this has come to be the film’s most affecting scene. For all of Fincher’s skilful deployment of Dutch angles, rusty-razor editing and high-contrast cinematography, he can also make a powerful sequence out of a straightforward, shot/reverse shot conversation. Tracy has set up a meeting with Somerset in a busy diner, where she tells him of her reservations about the move to the city, and fears for her unborn child. Somerset is taken aback that she is disclosing all of this to him before telling her husband, but listens intently. For an American diner, the colours are subdued. Fincher makes what should be a welcoming environment into a cold and hard one by keeping it graphically similar to the other spaces in the film, places of work, business, officialdom. Large areas of darkness in the frame are exacerbated by the black clothing. Since this film, Paltrow has become a fully-fledged movie star, and whatever you think of what she’s done with her career and her family and her baking, I will always remember her for what she does in this scene: the way her face crumples to release pent-up anguish at the end is so genuine, so perfect, and it gets me every time. Given what Tracy is supposed to do for the film, embodying a pure domesticity and threatened maternal femininity that the male characters have to fight to defend, it could have been far more trite, much softer than this.
Search for images of Brad Pitt in Seven. You’ll find that almost all the stills of him in the film show him pointing his gun at something. Granted, he does brandish a weapon at a couple of key points in the story, but the prevalence of the image would suggest that this was a film where shooting at things played a major role. Not once do we see anything solved with a gun, and this is the film’s only action sequence, just past the halfway mark. Pitt is pursuing John Doe through the corridor of the apartment block to which they have traced him. It’s a breathtaking pursuit on foot that goes through the guts of the building, out of the window and down into the streets, a sudden traversal of the nested spaces of private dread and alienation that make this the perfect place for a killer to hide, go unnoticed or disappear inside. Although it is a chase scene, Fincher also turns it into hide and seek: can you see the killer, can you pick him out from the decor and the clamour of the streets. He is glimpsed, disguised. Pitt himself is not a spot-lit star, but is instead held in a trembling tracking shot, glimmering in and out of focus and kept in semi-darkness by the strong light from a window behind and the occasional shafts of artificial light from above that obscure parts of his face. The scene of the ‘Pride‘ murder. John Doe (a placeholder name used in legal cases where the name of a man is unknown; it is the brand name of anonymity) is killing his victims in a moralistic form of performance art built around the theme of the Seven Deadly Sins. Each crime scene is a carefully composed vignette of embodied judgement. The scene is not just a tableau of clues, left accidentally, that might reveal the killer’s identity, but a pre-scripted sermon on the particular social evil the victim is deemed to represent. In this case, the victim has been prompted to kill herself; John Doe has sliced off her nose, and glued a pair of choices to her hands: in the left, a jar of pills, in the right, a telephone. She can call for help, or commit suicide and avoid the “shame” of living her life disfigured. The choices are displayed in a pair of balanced extreme close-ups that includes this one of the bottle. Her fingers are bloodied, indicating that this is the choice she has made, the hand she has raised to her face. It is especially haunting that we never see John Doe carrying out any of the murders. It’s difficult to imagine him commanding the kind of fearsome presence or physical prowess needed to control his victims to the extent that he does, but the absence of visual evidence forces us to try. The moral quandaries he attempts to throw at the discoverers of his “work” are monstrous; we might interpret a woman who kills herself rather than face the world without her beauty is the victim rather than the perpetrator of a broader sin of “judgement” or “hypocrisy”. But, by picking out the components (in this case the jar of pills) of the equation John Doe has presented to his audience, we can see that there’s a cruel logic, and an elaborate symmetry on display.In the climactic struggle with John Doe, Somerset and Mills are manoeuvred into position for the puzzle’s completion (the outcome of which I won’t discuss). The setting has finally moved beyond the limits of the city, but a short journey out of this city takes the drama into the non-space of a desert landscape whose only embellishments are a cross of straight roads and a pattern of pylons and cables that garrotte the sky. That sky is itself a blank backdrop, and the cables an imprisoning mesh. There is no relief beyond the city limits, so expansive opportunities. Somerset is preparing to open the package John Doe has delivered to the location and, as he stands at the compositional intersection of the lines above him, the colours of his clothing (the traditional movie detective get-up of raincoat and fedora) in perfect graphic sync with the image, we know that this is the moment when the pieces will fit, when sense will be made of the accumulated clues and portents. The low angle keeps important visual information out of the frame and tantalisingly out of view. The look of trepidation on Somerset’s face is unsettling, a rare moment of genuine uncertainty. We have relied on his wisdom throughout the film. What are we to expect if he doesn’t know if he can cope with what might be about to happen?