Once upon a time a young idealistic cop, and his wife, moves to the big city because he thinks he can do some good. He’s teamed with a cynical partner who is about to retire. Together they seek a serial killer who’s using the seven deadly sins as his inspiration. The killer is captured and the young cop, and his wife, lives happily ever after. Imagine Se7en concluding in such a way, something studio executives desired. The film would have remained stylish, exciting and depressing. Fortunately we have Se7en as it is, Se7en a film of contradictions: downbeat ending but popular; entertaining and bleak; genre and art house; European and American.
Virtually all Hollywood narratives are structured as fairy tales and so offer a happy ending. Se7en managed to be both subversive in its ending – people do not live ‘happily ever after’ – and popular: it grossed over $100 million at the North American (USA and Canada) box office. The downbeat ending (to understate the case) is not entirely absent in Hollywood’s output, indeed during the ‘New Hollywood’ of the early 1970s it was not exceptional (The Godfather, 1971, for example). However after Jaws (1975), the High Concept (see Contexts: Hollywood) summer blockbuster’ became the studios’ preferred method of making money and films conceived as blockbusters generally do not have unhappy endings.
Most people watch Hollywood cinema in order to be entertained. The biggest box office films of the year are invariably ‘popcorn movies’ whose ambition is to do no more than make money by entertaining as many people as possible. In North America, the world’s biggest market, recent top grossing movies have included: Independence Day (1996); Titanic (1997); Armageddon (1998); Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999) and Dr Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000). With the exception of Titanic, which dealt with social class and gender, these films have little, or no, pretensions about making significant statements about the human condition. Se7en, on the other hand, offers a vision that is bleak with virtually no possibility of redemption.
Se7en, like most entertaining films, is a genre movie; or rather a mix of a number of genres including film noir, serial killer and horror, It is also, in many ways, an art movie where ideas predominate over visceral pleasure. In this it has a European sensibility rather an optimistic brashness that typifies North American product. Despite this all its main creative personnel, cinematographer aside, are American. Many deride Hollywood for producing formulaic and banal films. This it does, but Hollywood also produces masterpieces like Se7en.
Extracted from Film Note: Se7en (available on kindle here)