Humanity has been obsessed with its end since, well, its beginning. Every culture and religion deals with it in one way or another whether it thinks of the end as coming with a long winter's snow as in some Norse myths, or through fire as some Christians have come to believe. We just can't stop telling stories about our end. Even in our century when we like to think of ourselves as enlightened by and freed from superstition—and in some ways religion—by science, our faith in science has led us to construct different stories, though they are no less interested in the finitude of the human race. It wasn't long ago, during the Cold War, that children went to bed saying, "Now I lay me down to sleep..." expecting the Lord to take their souls as a result of a nuclear war. Scientists and environmental groups warn us of the holes in the ozone layer, the Greenhouse Effect, and massive extinctions, armed with narratives as to how this all will bring, to paraphrase REM, an end to life on earth as we know it. Even The New Yorker has entered into the prophecy business with a recent article on the phenomenon of diminishing sperm counts. "Is this the way the world will end?" it asks as if it were the National Enquirer. One has only to read the article to find humor in the coming apocalypse since The New Yorker sees more of a threat to masculinity in the phenomenon, ignoring the fact that with the population at five billion and counting, and children born everyday, the diminishing fecundity of our men seems a moot point.
For Christians and therefore the Western world, the end of the world has always been connected with the idea of moral collapse. The concept that what is seen as declining morality can bring about the end of the world goes farther back than St. John's plagues and horsemen to Noah and to Sodom and Gomorrah. During the fourteenth century, a period rife with problems in the Church and society, so many people were speculating on he end of the world that at least one European ruler got fed up and banned all apocalyptic prophesies.
Since many of the films made about the end of the world, like the Mad Max series, are actually quite good, it would be nice for someone in the movie-making business to ban the making of really bad end of the world films, like Seven. Seven is a ludicrous story about a serial killer, (played by Kevin Spacey with a look of sociopathic calmness on his face borrowed from Charles Grodin) who takes it upon himself to mete out judgement on the world by selecting seven victims whose lives exemplify the excesses of the Seven Deadly Sins.
The film's makers might have been able to resurrect it had its outline ended here. However, they decide to add to it with layers and layers of film cliches, from the main characters themselves—the two detectives who are paired to investigate the murders—to the tension that defines their relationship, to the young wife who heals it. Remove the catchy theme of pseudo moral condemnation and what you have is another Lethal Weapon, with Morgan Freeman in the Danny Glover role and Brad Pitt substituting for Mel Gibson.
However, since the film masquerades as a sermon, it is instructive to attend to its lessons and the most instructive aspects of the film are the places in which it fails. While the afore-mentioned fourteenth century dwelt on the coming of the New Jerusalem, it also produced literature that depends highly on allegory. Medieval priests used allegorical figures in their sermons to spur their followers into greater contemplation (not to mention contribution), and in the fourteenth century dream vision, The Vision of Piers Plowman, the Seven Deadly Sins themselves appear as characters. Seven tears the Seven Deadly Sins from their medieval roots and attempts to sew them into the fabric of twentieth century American urban life, by making the murder victims' punishments fit their "crimes," much as Dante does in The Divine Comedy, but with less finesse. The film attempts the Seven Deadly Sins to patch up what it sees as decayed places in the fabric, burned into it like cigarette holes by pride, envy, wrath, sloth, greed, lechery, and gluttony.
Other films use allegory and make it relevant rather than just having the characters say that it's relevant. In The Seventh Seal Death appears as a character to terrify medieval European society. Where in The Seventh Seal the use of allegory feels organic and necessary, in a film set in the twentieth century the use of allegory looks forced and ridiculous, and its place in a film about a serial killer at its deepest reveals the extent to which movie producers will go to exploit a genre that is ruthless in its own sense of exploitation.
The film pretends that it is a comment on the decadence of modern life, but uses the language of another age. It takes so much time for Freeman to explain to Pitt the significance of the Seven Deadly Sins to their predicament that the killer may as well have been speaking Latin. It was a lucky coincidence that one of the policemen assigned to the investigation was Freeman's more learned character, and that Pitt's character, who for research reads the Cliff's Notes to Chaucer and Dante, didn't have to stumble through it on his own. If you really want to see a movie where books help you solve murders rent The Name of the Rose.
But the use of allegory and the allusions to the medieval texts in the film fail not only where the plot is concerned, but from a thematic standpoint, as well. Since the Middle Ages there has been a fundamental shift in the concept of human identity. Where we see ourselves as individuals today, medieval people envisioned themselves as part of a flock. Dante and some of the other medieval writers to which Seven alludes used allegory as a kind of mirror, using individual sins to reflect larger sins committed by the institutions that shaped medieval life. For all of its preaching about moral deterioration, Seven never makes the individual sins relevant to the everyday lives of the primary characters. We never see the actual breakdown occurring. For a while the film looked as if it could have been going somewhere, for the tension that soon became a cliche could have been a manifestation of Pride, the sin that St. Gregory felt was the greatest of the seven, since it led people to think that they were like God. But the scene showing the autopsy of the first murder victim ends all hope that the movie might be heading in an intelligent direction. Instead, we realize that the film is trying to be more disgusting than disturbing.
Just because the movie doesn't come through with a connection between the murders and actual social decadence, that doesn't mean it doesn't try. The final sequence attempts to tie everything together, but by that time it's too late and characters' final actions are so contrived that they don't fit with the rest of the movie and end up looking like the editors made a mistake and pasted the end of one film on the beginning of another.
The film also attempts a connection through the predicament of Pitt's character's pregnant wife, who after moving to the big city, decides that the world is no place to raise children and considers the option of aborting. Had her considerations come about as dialogue with the character's experience instead of as a reaction to things that neither she nor the audience ever sees, the writers could have been forgiven for adding yet another superfluous aspect to a movie that rapidly becomes superfluous itself. The scene in which the character announces her considerations tells us less about crumbling moral foundations of society than about the modern person's ability to apply morality to the decision-making process. The same stilted reasoning that the character uses to justify her considerations mirrors the murderer's, and therefore the film's, stilted understanding of what evil actually is and does. It suffers like much other contemporary moralizing, from "literal" readings.
The New Yorker's investigation into a possible avenue for the end of the world indicates, as does Seven, that we still think of our children as the hope for our future. Few films are as hard on the world as Seven. It is not only lousy storytelling, but woefully shortsighted and unforgiving. Unlike a film like Waterworld, which also deals with the end of the world, it allows no mistakes and foresees one final, horrible end. In Waterworld, Mary's abortion is not used as a moral barometer of society, but as an example of how the world ends for everyone every day of their lives. In Seven Morgan Freeman's character, who falls asleep to the constant rhythm of a metronome, at the end of the movie has nothing good to say about the world except that it is "worth fighting for." At one point during Seven Freeman throws the metronome across his bedroom in frustration, as if he were frustrated with the law its constancy dictates and he is looking for something else to guide him. But as his final words suggest, he never finds what he's looking for. However, the scene brings to mind another one of Brad Pitt's films, A River Runs Through It, in which a metronome is also a symbol of law and in which boys are taught to fish by its rhythms. They realize fundamental truths when fishing with the metronome, but realize grace when they break out of those rhythms.
Throughout this review of Seven I have mentioned several films that do what Seven tries to do but ultimately cannot. Things to Do In Denver When You're Dead takes its characters and audience through a similar version of Hell but manages to undo everything that Seven does. Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead reverses Seven's conclusions, and offers the people in its audience a gift to take home with them at the end.
The movie begins with a baptism and ends with a martyrdom. It tells the story of Jimmy the Saint, played by Andy Garcia, a former mob member who moved to Denver, like everybody else who's moved to this town recently, to escape hectic big-city life. His one tie to his former profession is that a Denver mobster, played by Christopher Walken, holds the mortgage on Jimmy's business, and one night he calls in the loan. Suffice it to say that what Jimmy does to erase his debt to his old employer goes horribly wrong, and he and the friends he assembles to help him are given a week to get out of Denver or they'll be hunted down and killed by Death in the form of a guy who dresses like one of the Blues Brothers and is more spooky than doll-faced Kevin Spacey could ever dream of being.
As violent as the film is (asked before the premiere of his film on the closing night of The Denver International Film Festival which directors he admires, the director mentioned Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese), and as dead as the title indicates the characters are, everything about Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead affirms life. Death in this movie is less a physical state than a state of spiritual paralysis. Christopher Walken plays Satan in the form of a quadraplegic, who holds court in a room with small stained-glass windows and whose son molests children in school yards. It is an ugly reflection of a fallen Holy Family—an impotent god, a missing mother and an anti-savior. Jimmy the Saint's endangered business offers dying people a chance at second life through videotapes of themselves talking to their heirs (It is ironic in that it is indeed a film-director's own hope of immortality—his work born again to live on video store walls). Even Jimmy's doomed friends, who at one point hold a meeting in a cemetery, as if it is the home in which they feel most safe and comfortable, refuse to die easily.
Jimmy's clients and friends pay homage to the stuff that makes life worth living. One woman in Jimmy's videos, dying of cancer, offers a gorgeous soliloquy on the joy of the first six months of romance, when you're first getting to know each other, are both giddy and are falling in love. When she tells us to enjoy it because it's something that ends, we feel the heavy weight of death compared to the supreme weightlessness of life in the difference between falling in love and working for a relationship.
The film's women are its hope. Jimmy's friend, a young prostitute who is in love with him and whom he protects from malicious Johns, would be the film cliche of the hooker with the heart of gold if Jimmy weren't a saint. Instead, she's Magdalene, or Hosea's wife, or the chosen people of God. Another of the film's women, Jimmy's new girlfriend, is the first six weeks of a romance embodied. The film's only mistake is making her a ski instructor who wants to live in Aspen. These are real women, not wimps who run like scared rabbits in the face of evil, as in Seven. These women ensure that the world will go on.
The opening scene of Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead was filmed two blocks from the office building where I work and across the street from the parking lot where I park my car five days a week. Denver's my hometown, so it is a bit depressing personally to see a movie where D is for Denver as well as death, decay and dormancy. Even in the end, none of the good guys stay in town. The last we see of the prostitute, she's boarding a bus on the way out of town, and even Jimmy's girlfriend is on her way to Aspen. But even in its ending the film wants to dwell on life. We see salvation in the final images in spite of death, not as a result of it. There is no image of Jimmy as a traditional Christ figure, his arms spread out in the form of a cross, dying. Instead, in a kind of cinematic triptych, we see the young prostitute, now a pregnant woman (The New Yorker never took into account Andy Garcia on Lookout Mountain in the back seat of a convertible), Jimmy's girlfriend, engaged to another man with a diamond that Jimmy bought, and Jimmy and his friends enjoying a very sunny day on a boat. They are Mary, Rachel, and Sarah, the Bride of Christ, and fishers of men.
The fundamental problem with Seven is that it gives up on the living. The rain that falls on its characters throughout lacks power to cleanse, forgive, heal or save. It dwells far too much on the law, on the mistakes we as imperfect beings make. It sees every sin as a "deadly" crime, not as a chance for spiritual revelation, repentance, contemplation or re-birth of the soul. Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead is populated by evil-doers, many who commit crimes on par, worse, or more shocking than the ones Seven's serial killer accuses his victims of committing. The differences between them and the characters in Seven is that the world isn't on the verge of ending. They are given infinite chances at life.