I didn’t like Se7en the first time I saw it. I was annoyed by how illogically elaborate all of John Doe’s murders were; I just couldn’t accept that a deranged madman would spend years constructing ironic Bible-themed tortures to use against total strangers. The whole premise of the movie didn't wash for me.
I also hated Se7en the second time I saw it because all of the stuff about how Morgan Freeman’s detective character was on the verge of retirement struck me as cheesy. Didn't the filmmakers realize that their super generic 80's-style cops weren't really a tonal match for their super morbid 90's style serial killer?
But a few years ago I saw Se7en under the right circumstances and I actually loved it. I was cooking dinner in the kitchen and it was playing in the living room on mute. I could mostly see the screen over the counter top but my attention was really on dinner, and more importantly I was listening to my mom talk and not the movie's overwrought neo-noir dialogue. Within those limitations Se7en was great - every time I would look up there would be some compelling composition, or some intense action scene, and there was no dopey dialogue undercutting the tension, so I would think “huh, this movie looks cool. Maybe I was wrong about it.”
So I decided to give it another try - this time with the sound on. And I still hated it for all of the reasons that I had always hated it.
All of which makes me think that I should have watched The Trial while cooking, because this is another movie that looks great but is completely unfulfilling.
Almost all of The Trial's problems can be traced back to the fact that Anthony Perkins was wildly miscast in the lead role of Josef K., an anonymous office drone in Prague. In Franz Kafka's original novel Josef is insecure, self-loathing, and existentially hesitant, but Perkins is none of those things. In fact, he is their opposite – he is handsome, seemingly confident and righteously indignant. The whole point of Kafka's story is that if you are treated as if you are guilty for long enough you will begin to internalize that stigma: in the novel Josef starts off strongly denying the groundless accusations that nameless strangers have made against him, but as his case drags on and on he slowly begins to accept that he is a criminal that has committed some unnamed and unforgiveable crime. Perkins, however, plays Josef K. as a man who never wavers in his belief that he is innocent – his fury never dims, his voice never quavers, and he never understands the dark irony of his situation. Thus what should be an extended metaphor about the insidious nature of anti-Semitism become a film about a random WASP-y guy that people keep picking on for no good reason.
I could probably forgive the film’s inability to convey Kafka’s moral if it at least managed to convey his tone, but alas Welles’ version of The Trial is nowhere near as funny as it needs to be. Kafka’s writings are full of gallows humor; he exaggerates his scenarios in such a way that they are as absurd as they are menacing. Unfortunately this movie is humorless; Perkins is too square to understand that he’s become the butt of a cosmic joke. By capturing the paranoia of the original novel but not its playfulness he only tells half the story – and it’s the less enjoyable half of the story.
However, there is one way in which The Trial succeeds: it looks amazing. The sets are a perfectly dystopian mix of too-bright and too dark - Josef works in a giant warehouse that is overlit by fluorescent lights but his walk home is mostly through drastically unlit alleyways. The apartment complex where he lives is an unwelcoming concrete block on the edge of a dead space where no grass will grow, and his neighbors either look bone tired or mean spirited. And all of it is filmed with intense camera angles that make the whole thing seem impossible and dream like – the viewer tends to look down on Josef and not through his eyes. If you watched this movie with the sound off you would think it was the perfect adaptation, because the impressionistic cinematography manages to convey all of Kafka’s suffocating oddness in a way that the script's words cannot.
That said: I would still prefer a film that’s half frustrating and half impressive over a film that’s just frustrating any day of the week. I mean, yes, this film isn't as philosophically deep as it should be, nor is it as amusing as I want it to be - but I can't deny that its a visual feast, and that puts it lightyears ahead of a lot of other ill conceived literary adaptions I've seen. If there's one thing I learned from watching Se7en so many times its that a film you can only bear to half watch is still twice as good as a film you can't bear to watch at all.
...Although that said, I think I'm done watching Se7en. Three and a half bad experiences seems like more than enough for one lifetime.