Film Torments: Seven Pounds (2008)

THIS week’s Torment is an acerbic throttling of Will Smith’s most recent stab at Oscar glory: Seven Pounds.

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Rich Kee: I don’t like hating movies. It’s very rare that I come out of a movie really bothered by its badness, and I don’t get that big a kick out of writing negative reviews. The omnipresence of bad movies only makes the good ones better. In a choice between watching a great movie and recommending it to everyone, or watching a terrible movie and slagging it off to everyone, I’ll always take the former route.

One film that several of my friends urged me to watch a few years back was Seven Pounds, and knowing nothing about it except that it was a Will Smith movie which made everybody cry, I fully expected to like it.

This movie is one of very, very few I truly hate. And when I say I hate it, I mean that I hate that it even exists. It totally failed to achieve anything it set out to do. Seven Pounds offended me. I was disgusted with it. I wish I’d never watched this movie. I despise everything it stands for.

There are millions who disagree. While reviews were mixed-to-negative, this film has tons of fans who fell in love with it. It has a 7.7 score on IMDB and only 27% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is a bizarre discrepancy between critics and the public. While perusing the reviews on IMDB from back in 2008, loads of people were adamant that it was an Oscar-worthy masterpiece.

I have absolutely no idea how these people fell for this movie, but I can understand why. If you accept this film on its own terms, it’s powerful stuff. If you allow yourself to be manipulated by Seven Pounds, then it will manipulate you expertly.

Expert manipulation in-progress.

Expert manipulation in-progress.

The film is very slow to contextualise itself, and reveals Will Smith’s backstory slowly while showing events out of order. For me, it was too slow; I’d figured out every twist and turn a good half-hour before any of it paid off, and once you stop guessing there’s little to entertain you as it trudges along.

The main arc of Will Smith (his character has a name, but I don’t care what it is) is a tragic one. He intends to kill himself, but first finds seven people to whom he can bequeath his organs. The reason (spoiler alert!) for his suicide is that his fiancée died in a car crash along with six others two years previous, while he was driving and texting at the same time. There’s no ambiguity to the film’s stance on this: Will Smith is a fucking angel from on high making the noblest sacrifice in the world to atone for an unforgiveable deed.

Whether or not you tolerate this movie comes down to one value judgment. If you think committing suicide for the benefit of others is awesome, then you won’t get why I’m opposed to this film. But if you ask me, killing yourself is NOT COOL! I dread the day when somebody tries to do this in real life, because they saw it in the movie and they think it will give their pointless death meaning like it did for Will Smith. If people can die copying The Deer Hunter, they can die copying Seven Pounds, and that thought scares me.

Though this scene would benefit from a round of Russian Roulette.

Though this scene would benefit from a round of Russian Roulette.

This plot isn’t inherently reprehensible. In fact it’s actually quite clever and original – I can see it working. The problem is in the handling of the concept. Rather than depicting Smith’s character as a damaged, vulnerable person who needs some serious counselling, he’s a holier-than-thou saint on an inspirational mission. All this even though what they actually show is him manipulating and deceiving his terminally ill love interest (who he, no kidding here, LITERALLY gives his heart to) and brother (who he gave a lung to), who are hapless victims of his maniacal behaviour.

I can’t think of any film that portrays suicide in such an offensively sentimental way. I’m all for heroic sacrifice, but there’s a difference between taking a bullet for someone, or surrendering yourself to the villain to prevent the suffering of others a la Harry Potter. As much as I empathise, I can’t find elegance in unnecessary suicide, especially when in order to relay his own personal guilt he ingratiates himself with people who love him and don’t hold the accident against him, and then forces a life of survivor’s guilt upon them. He’s a horrible hypocrite, and this movie is too asinine to realise that.

Further than the moral issues, there’s the logical failings. Firstly, his value judgments are based on pithy ideals. He decides that a blind call centre employee (played by Woody Harrelson, who I usually think can do no wrong) is worthy of receiving his eyes because he puts up with verbal abuse on the phone. Of course, he tests this himself by harassing the poor guy over the phone while he’s at work. Apparently being a doormat and following mandatory work etiquette are qualities which deserve to be rewarded. Say, Will, what if after your horrific bullying (which the blind person doesn’t know is just for pretend), he went home and killed himself so you had to find a thicker-skinned blind person to pretend to hate?

At least Woody's hair is electric as ever.

At least Woody’s hair is electric as ever.

This screening process to find the most perfect human beings to be donated to continues throughout the film, mostly before we even learn why he’s doing it. I could make a long list of his indiscretions, and crashing his car because he looked at his phone for all of two seconds would be one of the lesser ones.

I’ve saved the most egregious sin of this film for last. The way he chooses to take his own life is… and I can’t believe I’m writing this… by dropping a deadly box jellyfish into his bathtub. Not only is this cartoony as hell (I laughed out loud when I saw it for the first time), but pumping his body with poison would in fact make his organs totally ineligible to donate, as well as putting the police at risk. He puts up a warning sign, but even in a bath full of ice he’s definitely delaying his extraction from the tub until after the jellyfish has been dealt with.

This ludicrous suicide is utterly gratuitous and desperate to be unique. Hanging himself or slitting his wrists is more predictable, but at least his death wouldn’t have been unintentionally hilarious. Death by jellyfish is something you’d expect in a Bond movie, not in the climax of an intense prestige picture.

At least it's imaginative...?

At least it’s imaginative…?

When I tell people that this is the movie I hate more than any other, they’re usually shocked that I could be so heartless. This film has touched a lot of people; the scenes which made me laugh or facepalm made them sob, and I just can’t understand their mindset. Seven Pounds is an interesting litmus test of how you judge the value of a life, so I’d actually encourage everybody to give this film a try.

It’s worth watching just to find out whether or not you like it, and if you do like it then good for you. I don’t think people who like this film are stupid or ignorant just because I disagree; they see something beautiful while I see something ugly. If you’re a fan of this film, then you’re allowed to be… but don’t bring it up around me!

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