More Scenic Routes
- A quiet scene from The Matrix demonstrates how to make exposition compelling
- Shelley Duvall does the talking, but Sissy Spacek may be the real protagonist of Altman’s 3 Women
- The big numbers are the lowlight of Dancer In The Dark
- The cats, not the cast, draw viewers’ eyes in Jean Vigo’s classic L’Atalante
- What Quiz Show proves about film directing and Argo’s Best Director snub
When David Fincher announced that he’d be following The Social Network with an American remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, I announced to nobody in particular that I’d be following that day’s lunch with a series of painful dry heaves. Even now, as the completed film receives measured praise from embargo-breaking weasels (only David Denby’s review has appeared as I write this), it’s hard for me to work up any real excitement. Fincher has long been one of my favorite directors, but I couldn’t care less about the Stieg Larsson phenomenon: My attempt to read Dragon Tattoo didn’t make it past page 20, and the Swedish film adaptation, for all its efforts to confront and shock, nearly bored me into a coma. With apologies to fans, I’ve chalked the whole thing up to worldwide mass hysteria. And so I sit here, dreading the day that I’ll feel obligated, either professionally or just out of sheer loyalty, to give the movie a chance.
Which is stupid. If there’s one thing that Fincher has consistently demonstrated throughout his career, it’s that he doesn’t require great writing to fashion extraordinary cinema. Hell, even if you do hand him a fantastic page-turner of a script, he’s liable to concoct something that transcends narrative and language; Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for The Social Network deservedly won every award known to man, but the movie’s finest sequence is the early montage depicting the creation of Facemash.com, which derives most of its power from such purely visual niceties as the placement of computer monitors within the frame. What I’m mostly clinging to right now, though, is the central chase sequence from Seven—a magnificently orchestrated dose of sheer chaos that looks as if it were fashioned on the fly, though it surely wasn’t. That it erupts in the middle of a film otherwise devoid of conventional “action” only makes it more electrifying.
One of the challenges Fincher was handed here was to keep John Doe’s identity obscured throughout—Andrew Kevin Walker’s script explicitly notes that the killer’s face is never seen. The purpose of this strategy isn’t the usual one, since Seven isn’t a whodunit; it’s not as if we’re wondering which of the supporting characters will be revealed as the culprit, and while Kevin Spacey’s name doesn’t appear in the opening credits, Walker doesn’t seem to anticipate the role being filled by a celebrity guest star. (Spacey wasn’t even a big star yet when he was cast, actually, as The Usual Suspects came out the same year.) The idea, presumably, was to keep Evil faceless as long as possible, it being more deeply unnerving that way. Fincher obliges by keeping the figure in shadow, at a distance, or out of focus, allowing him to exist as a silhouette of fedora and trenchcoat; the final, infinitely menacing appearance of that silhouette as a reflection in a puddle would be right at home in a German Expressionist film, apart from the color.
It’s also a brief moment of agonizing stillness that follows five minutes of nonstop frenzied movement. If you haven’t seen Seven for a while, you may recall, as I mistakenly did, that Fincher achieves that sense of chaos by shooting handheld, running pell-mell after Brad Pitt down hallways and through windows. In fact, the scene feels chaotic because Fincher alternates handheld shots with fixed compositions, giving it a jerky start-stop rhythm that calls to mind that kids’ game “Red Light Green Light.” He also makes maximum use of Morgan Freeman’s presence, even though Freeman does absolutely nothing from the moment that hell breaks loose except try to figure out where everyone is. Cutaways to his slow progress serve both to interrupt (quite deliberately) any linear back-and-forth between Pitt and Spacey and—crucially—to keep us oriented as the pursuit moves not just from floor to floor but out of the building and then back inside.
And here we enter the realm where certain aspects of sheer awesomeness become hard to articulate, though I’ll do my best. People grumbled good-naturedly in the comments for my last column, in which I vaguely alluded to my, uh, controversial piece on Children Of Men and my general disdain for insanely complicated action sequences shot in a single unbroken take. But so much of cinema’s power resides in the inspired juxtaposition of separate shots. There’s something intensely arresting, for example, in the sequence that follows Pitt out the window; cuts to him sprinting left to right across what look like giant garbage bins, as pigeons haul ass out of his way; then to a shot of him leaping the camera, sandwiched between two buildings (we’ve now reversed direction); then to a brief shot from inside the building as he lands, sliding, on some inclined surface; then to an even briefer shot, in which the action’s continuous but we’re now twice as close, as he arises and takes aim; and finally the iconic shot of John Doe caught in mid-vault, framed against the building’s elaborate molding, seen through the dirty window with roughly the left 40 percent of the frame obscured by a haze of grime. You can’t achieve something like that by strapping on the Steadicam and following the actor all over creation.
Sorry, I really didn’t set out to preach that particular gospel again. There’s much more to the scene that makes it memorable, from the uncommonly realistic way Pitt handles his gun—he genuinely looks like he’s scared to death of being shot, which you almost never see in Hollywood movies—to the wonderfully witty moment that sees Freeman, who’s too old for this shit, just walk out the front door of the building like a normal human being right after both Doe and Pitt have laboriously made their way down the fire escape. (By the way, isn’t Seven meant to be set in a pointedly unnamed urban hell? Because the Chester Williams Building really does exist at that address in Los Angeles.) And while I tend to be annoyed by orchestral scores that tell me what I’m supposed to be feeling, I must admit that Howard Shore makes the bombast work in this case, mostly by leaning hard on a single subterranean Bass Note Of Doom. To this day, Seven remains the only movie I’ve ever seen that had me feeling physically sore the next day, due to having spent entire scenes like this one with every muscle in my body tightly clenched. If The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo delivers half as much sheer visual brio, I’ll forgive it any amount of narrative tedium.