To be published only if and when the moods and movies strike us, Movies That Made Us is an occasional look at films that led us all here and still make us wonder about where we’ve yet to go.
Editor’s Note: Nick Rogers originally wrote this piece in January but is publishing it to coincide with the new availability of Se7en on Netflix. Are his Christmas decorations still up? That’s for you to decide. After all, it is supposed to snow today.
It’s impossible for me to dissociate my feelings about Se7en from the first time I experienced it — barely 16, alone, on a rainy and chilly September night after driving to the Lindo Theatre in Freeport, Illinois. So I won’t even try.
They had only three auditoriums in this town of about 25,000, and although Se7en was a wide release, I was amazed I didn’t have to drive 60 miles to see it (as I was perfectly willing to do). I had seen the perfunctory trailers rattling off the seven deadly sins in a rapid-fire scroll. I liked Brad Pitt. I enjoyed Morgan Freeman. I knew Gwyneth Paltrow from Flesh and Bone. I had zero idea Kevin Spacey was involved in any capacity. I wonder now whether Se7en would have fallen victim to crib death were it released 20 years later. That ending became a sometimes very-funny joke to spoof but at the time, it was hardly everywhere as it would be now. Ditto for The Blair Witch Project a few years later, which was clearly not real … but was it? Maybe just a little bit? Se7en was the first movie to make me appreciate shrewd withholding.
To watch it now seems so stunningly obvious. John Doe goads David Mills rather specifically on what he’ll notice about the big finish. It was hardly the first film I had seen with an unhappy ending or in which the bad guy “won.” I wasn’t thinking of those things as it unfolded. I was knocked back. It was the first time I felt like either of these notions in a movie rattled how I saw the world.
I was certain I would be far from that town two years later, on my way to great things in college and beyond, telling people the dream was to write for Rolling Stone someday. Most of those things still happened. I hadn’t faced significant obstacles then. I’d freely admit I haven’t still. Setbacks, sure, but certainly nothing that forever altered a trajectory to where I am now or wanted to be. Big things don’t have to include Rolling Stone. The closest I ever came to changing my life in an altogether unexpected way was applying to a job in middle-of-nowhere Alaska out of desperation. They had a combination Chinese-Mexican restaurant and a Subway. They did not have any theaters that would show Se7en. They did not have theaters.
Thankfully, I got a job elsewhere that allowed me a forum in which to ferret out my thoughts on films. Has there been a bad guy in my life besides what I perceive to be my own obsessions and occasional laziness? Not at all. But Se7en was the first movie to impart a vigilance against them lest they settle in to corrode or utterly consume the good in the way Doe’s plan does that within Mills.
I rarely have physical reactions to films. I don’t cry much. It’s not a badge of honor or shame. Just is what it is. Goosebumps are generally it, although I recently kicked a seat-back at Daddy’s Home 2 and I openly sobbed alongside my wife years ago when Big Fish reminded us all over again about the grandparents we loved and lost. Se7en was among the first such physical responses, too.
Its gut-punches are bookended by credit sequences unlike any I had ever seen. To be fair, NO ONE had ever seen anything like its opening credits. John Doe doesn’t show his face for 90 minutes but the credits emphasize the magnitude of what Mills and Somerset are up against and the hubris of Mills’ assumption that this will be an open-and-shut case in terms of closure and culture. I’m sure there were many movies before whose end credits spooled from top-down, but I’d never seen that before. It added to the way the world felt knocked upside down. As the ambience of “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” — a Bowie song, of course a Bowie song, for when is there NOT a Bowie song applicable to all corners of our condition — gave way to the martial assault of its pounding-heart percussion, I started to shake as others gathered their things. Neither violently nor uncontrollably, and I was able to get up just fine once the credits were over. But my legs felt heavy on the walk back to my car and my mind the same on the way home.
Se7en is also what formed my preference for a long drive with just my thoughts after a movie — ideal in that first job when I had to drive 90 minutes back after reviewing one of them. Going to movies alone is one of my favorite things. I watch Se7en now and look back on that drive home in my older brother’s first car, handed down to me. A red Camaro. Coche del Amor, as a friend of mine called it. There was never any love made in it, at least not by me. The two things I remember most about that car were its uselessness in snow and sitting in it driving home from Se7en — the teenage realization of the magnitude of corruptibility, fallibility and the grace not all of us are fortunate enough to find in falling prey to them. For we all fall prey to them and yet we press on. To watch it then was the fear of what could test me. To watch it now is the fear that I’ve not yet been tested and wonder how much harder it could be after 23 additional years of frailty.
Today, I watch it from my large couch, complemented by the glow of Christmas lights we haven’t yet taken down because my wife and I like to keep them up on nights like tonight where it’s a new year but the same old snow and chilliness. She is not here. I rarely watch movies like this when she’s around. She may have seen it at some point before we knew each other. She’d have just turned 15. Did she sneak off with friends to see it? Did it rattle her in the same way it did me? I’ve never asked. I probably should. Again, as I always do, I watch it alone, as I did all those years ago — and I’m thrown back into the mindspace of that kid in the Lindo Theatre and thrown flat all over again.