SE7EN

Septenary of Horror

“At first sin is a stranger in the soul; then it becomes a guest; and when we are habituated to it, it becomes as if the master of the house.” – Tolstoy.

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Although not originating from the bible, the concept of deadly sins is almost as old as Christian doctrine itself. Theologians like 4th century Greek monk Evagrius of Pontus first compiled catalogues of deadly offenses against the divine order, which 6th century Pope Gregory the Great consolidated into a list of seven sins, which in turn formed the basis of the works of medieval / renaissance writers like St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae), Geoffrey Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales), Christopher Marlowe (Dr. Faustus), Edmund Spenser (The Faerie Queene) and Dante Alighieri (Commedia Divina / Inferno). And in times when the ability to read was a privilege rather than a basic skill, the depiction of sin in paintings wasn’t far behind; particularly resulting from the 16th century’s reformulation of church doctrine, the works of artists like Hieronymus Bosch and Pieter Bruegel the Elder brought the horrific results of humankind’s penchant to indulge in vice back into general consciousness with surrealistic eloquence, reminding their viewers that no sin goes unseen (Bosch, The Seven Deadly Sins) and that its commission leads straight into a hell reigned by gruesome, grotesque demons and devils whose sole purpose is to torture those fallen into their hands (Bosch, The Hay-Wagon and The Last Judgment; Bruegel, The Triumph of Death, The Tower of Babel, and The Fall of the Rebel Angels).


Antonio Manetti: The circles of Dante’s Hell
(woodcut, 1506)

More recently, the seven deadly sins have been the subject of Stephen Sondheim’s play Getting Away With Murder and a ballet by George Balanchine (Seven Deadly Sins); and on the silver screen the topic has been addressed almost since the beginning of filmmaking (Cabiria [1914], Intolerance [1916]). Thus, Se7en builds on a solid tradition both in its own domain and in other art forms, topically as well as in its approach, denouncing society’s apathy towards vice and crime. Yet – and although expressly referencing the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, Chaucer and Dante – David Fincher’s movie eschews well-trodden paths and grabs the viewer’s attention from the beginning; and it does so not merely by the depiction of serial killer John Doe’s (Kevin Spacey‘s) crimes, which could easily degenerate into a mindless bloodfest that would defeat the movie’s purpose. (Not that there isn’t a fair share of blood and gore on display; both visually and in the characters’ dialogue regarding those details not actually shown; but Fincher uses the crimes’ gruesome nature to create a sense of stark realism, rather than for shock value alone.) In addition, Doe’s mindset is painstakingly presented by the opening credits’ jumpy nature, his “lair”‘s apocalyptic makeup and his notebooks, all of which were actually written out (at considerable expense), and whose compilation is shown underlying the credits. The movie’s atmosphere of unrelenting doom is further underscored by a color scheme dominated by brown, gray and only subdued hues of other colors, and by the fact that almost every outdoors scene is set in rain. Moreover, although screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker explains on the DVD that the story was inspired by his observations in New York (and the movie was shot partly there, partly in L.A.), it is set in a faceless, nameless city, thus emphasizing that its concern isn’t a specific location but society generally.

Central to the movie is the contrast between world-weary Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) who, while decrying the rampant occurrence of violence in society, for much of the movie seems to have resigned himself to his inability to do something meaningful about this (and therefore seems to accept apathy for himself, too, until his reluctant final turnaround), and younger Detective Mills (Brad Pitt), who fought for a reassignment to this particular location, perhaps naively expecting his contributions to actually make a difference; only to become a pawn in Doe’s scheme instead and thus show that, given the right trigger, nobody is beyond temptation. As such, Somerset and Mills are not merely another incarnation of the well-known old-cop-young-cop pairing. Rather, their characters’ development over the course of the film forces each viewer to examine his/her own stance towards vice.

Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt perfectly portray the two detectives; while Freeman imbues his Will Somerset with a quiet dignity, professionalism and learning, muted by profound but not yet wholly irreversible resignation, Pitt’s David Mills is a brash everyman from the suburbs with an undeniable streak of prejudice, a penchant for quick judgment and a thorough lack of sophistication, both personally and culturally. Notable are also the appearances of Gwyneth Paltrow (significantly Brad Pitt’s real-life girlfriend at the time) as Mills’s wife Tracy and ex-marine R. Lee Ermey as the police captain. Yet, from his very first appearance onwards, this is entirely Kevin Spacey‘s film. Reportedly, Brad Pitt especially fought hard for his casting; and it is indeed hard to imagine Se7en with anybody other than the guy who, that same year, also won an Oscar for portraying devilish Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects: No living actor has Spacey‘s ability to simultaneously express spine-chilling villainy, laconic indifference and limitless superiority with merely a few gestures and vocal inflections.

While Se7en can certainly claim the “sledgehammer” effect on its viewers sought by its fictional killer, the punishment meted out to Doe’s victims – taking their perceived sins to the extreme – pales in comparison to that awaiting sinners according to medieval teachings. (Inter alia, gluttons would thus be forced to eat vermin, toads and snakes, greed-mongers put in cauldrons of boiling oil and those guilty of lust smothered in fire and brimstone.) Most serial killers also have decidedly more mundane motivations than Doe. And after all, this is only a movie.

Right?

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“Sin … engenders vice by repetition of the same acts, [clouding the conscience and corrupting the judgment.] Thus sin tends to reproduce … and reinforce itself, but it cannot destroy the moral sense at its root.” Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994)

 

Hieronymus Bosch: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things (c. 1500)

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: New Line Cinema (1995)
  • Director: David Fincher
  • Executive Producers: Anne Kopelson & Dan Kolsrud
  • Producers: Arnold Kopelson & Phyllis Carlyle
  • Screenplay: Andrew Kevin Walker
  • Music: Howard Shore
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Darius Khondji
Cast
  • Morgan Freeman: Somerset
  • Brad Pitt: Mills
  • Kevin Spacey: John Doe
  • Gwyneth Paltrow: Tracy
  • R. Lee Ermey: Police Captain
  • Andrew Kevin Walker: Dead Man at 1st Crime Scene (as Andy Walker)

 

Pieter Brueghel the Elder: The Tower of Babel (c. 1563)

 

Major Awards

National Board of Review Awards (1995)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey
    – also for “The Usual Suspects.”
ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) Awards (1996)
  • Top Box Office Films: Howard Shore
MTV Movie Awards (1996)
  • Best Movie
  • Best Villain: Kevin Spacey
  • Most Desirable Male: Brad Pitt

 

Links

 


Pieter Brueghel the Elder: The Fall of the Rebel Angels (1562)

 

Pieter Brueghel the Elder: The Triumph of Death (c. 1562)

 


Hieronymus Bosch: The Last Judgment (c. 1482)

OUTBREAK

Casualties of War

“In war, truth is the first casualty.” – Aischylos.

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In 1989, a secret U.S. Army SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) team was called in after an Ebola outbreak among monkeys in a Reston, VA lab; a mere ten miles from Washington, D.C. They eventually determined that this particular strain wasn’t contagious for humans – others, however, are; capable of producing a 90% mortality rate within a matter of days. The Reston incident produced Richard Preston’s bestselling book The Hot Zone, on which this movie is loosely based (another project involving Robert Redford and Jodie Foster eventually folded).

Like the Reston Ebola strain, the (fictitious) Motaba virus at the center of Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak is brought to the U.S. by an infected monkey, caught near a village in the Zairean (now: Congolese) Motaba Valley. Unlike the Reston Ebola it is contagious for humans, with a 100% mortality rate within a single day. And, again unlike the Reston strain, it is airborne, i.e., not only transmitted by direct human-to-human contact.

Officially nobody has any prior knowledge of the virus at the time of its apparent first hit. In fact, once they’ve overcome their shock about its gruesome effects, USAMRIID (United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases) Colonel Sam Daniels (Dustin Hoffman) and his assistants, Majors Schuler and Salt (Kevin Spacey and Cuba Gooding Jr.) – in Zaire to provide medical assistance – are downright ecstatic to have discovered a new virus; a once-in-a-lifetime event for most scientists, if it happens at all. What they don’t know is that their own superiors, Brigadier General Billy Ford (Morgan Freeman) and Major General Donald McClintock (Donald Sutherland) have encountered this virus before, albeit non-airborne, in a mercenary camp in 1967 … and on McClintock’s orders, firebombed the camp to secretly develop a biological weapon. Now McClintock insists that their knowledge remain secret even after a first Motaba outbreak in Boston, brought about by the Californian animal lab worker (Patrick Dempsey) who has unwittingly smuggled the carrier monkey out to sell it to a pet store; and after another outbreak in Cedar Creek, CA, transmitted through the pet store owner and a lab technician infected by his blood. McClintock’s solution is the same as 30 years earlier: Firebomb the contaminated area and everybody in it, keep your weapon and be done with it.

But unlike 1967, complete secrecy is no longer an option, as not only Colonel Daniels’s team but also his ex-wife Robby (Rene Russo), who is now with the CDC and has helped contain the Boston outbreak, is aware of the virus’s presence. Thus, McClintock opts for the reverse strategy, obtains a presidential OK for his “Operation Clean Sweep” – after a dramatic presentation to the assembled cabinet resulting in the conclusion that the “bug” is capable of spreading to the entire country, including D.C., within a mere 48 hours; and the admonishment “Be compassionate, but be compassionate globally” – and orders Ford to get Daniels out of the way and keep him “in line.”

Daniels, however, who has long earned a reputation for following orders rather selectively, rushes to Cedar Creek, to work alongside Robby and her team trying to contain the virus. In short order Ford and McClintock show up as well, and soon the town is crawling with soldiers, who seal it off to the outside world and implement a curfew, to prevent a further spread of the virus but also in preparation of “Operation Clean Sweep.” A frantic race ensues; pitting Daniels and Salt, who set out to search for the host animal to develop an antiserum, against their own comrades.

The premise of Outbreak is entirely believable; as evidenced not only by the 1989 Virginia incident – after all, it was mere luck that the Reston strain didn’t prove contagious for humans –, but even more so, by the mid-2010 years’ severe Ebola crisis in several West African countries, which claimed the lives of thousands of Africans and also those of a number of North Americans and Europeans who had traveled to the countries struck by the disease.  Moreover, it has long been public knowledge that various kinds of viral strains do exist in the U.S. and other countries; at the very least for experimental purposes. While their military use is banned under the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, there still is no functioning control mechanism in place (which was also a factor in the Iraq weapons of mass destruction debate). And although the U.S. is a signatory to both aforementioned instruments and has previously stated its non-use policy, the Bush government abandoned international discussions on the issue in 2001.

So, Outbreak addresses enormously important concerns; and it does so compellingly and with a stellar cast. Dustin Hoffman imbues his Colonel Daniels with tremendous compassion but also a great sense of humor; and his snappy exchanges with Russo’s Robby Keough and his team are a delight, especially those with Kevin Spacey, who in 1995 burst into movie audiences’ collective awareness with this film, the Oscar-winning The Usual Suspects, and Se7en. Morgan Freeman brings all his sensitivity to the movie’s most intricate role, General Ford, who is caught between being party to McClintock’s scheme and realizing its profound immorality. Then-27-year-old Cuba Gooding Jr. may have been a bit young to play a Major, but he certainly stands his ground; and few actors can portray a villain as menacingly as Donald Sutherland, although the script gives him little opportunity for true complexity.

Unfortunately, Outbreak gets the full “Hollywood thriller” treatment, complete with dramatic score, two-dimensional villain, clichéd ending and reliance on a few coincidences too many. This (and some plot inconsistencies) somewhat reduces its effect, preventing a good movie from becoming a truly great one – although its ‘copter chases are pure eye candy; and it certainly helps that they were shot by Michael Ballhaus, arguably the business’s best cameraman. But for the importance of its subject alone, and its outstanding cast, Outbreak is worth all the notice it has received.

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“[The Cedar Creek population] are casualties of war. … I’d give them all a medal if I could. But they are casualties of war.” “Outbreak,” Maj.Gen. Donald McClintock

“[N]o massacre has occurred … no further action is warranted.” Department of the Army: initial investigation report on the March 16, 1968 My Lai incident (Vietnam)

 

Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Warner Bros. (1995)
  • Director: Wolfgang Petersen
  • Executive Producers: Duncan Henderson & Anne Kopelson
  • Producers: Wolfgang Petersen / Arnold Kopelson / Gail Katz
  • Screenplay: Laurence Dworet & Robert Roy Pool
  • Music: James Newton Howard
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Michael Ballhaus
Cast
  • Dustin Hoffman: Sam Daniels
  • Rene Russo: Roberta “Robby” Keough
  • Morgan Freeman: Brigadier General Billy Ford
  • Kevin Spacey: Major Casey Schuler
  • Cuba Gooding Jr.: Major Salt
  • Donald Sutherland: Major General Donald McClintock
  • Patrick Dempsey: James “Jimbo” Scott
  • Zakes Mokae: Dr. Benjamin Iwabi
  • Malick Bowens: Dr. Raswani
  • J.T. Walsh: White House Chief of Staff (uncredited)

 

Major Awards

New York Film Critics Circle Awards (1995)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey
    – also for Swimming with Sharks, The Usual Suspects, and Se7en
Seattle International Film Festival (1995)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Kevin Spacey
    – also for The Usual Suspects and Se7en
ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) Awards (1996)
  • Top Box Office Films: James Newton Howard

 

Links