THESIS (1996)

I feel very fortunate that as a film-nut I live with a girlfriend who is equally fond of spending an evening cwtching up (Welsh /kʊtʃ/ – a cuddle or hug) to watch a movie. Whilst discussing our favourite thrillers and crime movies after finishing Seven she asked if I had watched “Tesis” (Thesis). I had not. What’s more, I hadn’t even heard of it.

In case you haven’t either, this crime/thriller was the first feature-length directorial effort of Alejandro Amenábar – who would go on to direct The Others – another phenomenal film that I’d recommend if you’re ever in the mood for a spot of gothic horror – and the Oscar winning The Sea Inside (Mar Adentro) amongst others. Whilst not a directorial effort, the multifaceted Amenábar also scored a favourite Spanish-language film of mine, Butterfly’s Tongue (originally La Lengua de las Mariposas); Clearly not satisfied with “just” director and co-writer credits, Amenábar also scored Tesis, of course. Needless to say, I was already sold, and we watched it that very night…

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… and absolutely loved it. Ángela, a film student writing a thesis on the effects of violence in the media on the family comes into possession of a snuff film, who she discovers features a girl who was a student at the same university and had disappeared two years before, throwing her into a game of cat and mouse in which the identity of the cat does not always seem so clear-cut. The story twists and turns, testing her loyalties, and turning allies into suspects and back. Very cleverly, the rate at which the most likely suspect changes increases throughout, before a rollercoaster finale in which many pieces of the puzzle are thrown firmly into their correct place. Much in the vein of other nineties crime films like The Silence of the Lambs and Seven, the killer is a highly intelligent and charming individual rather than a caricature and one-dimensional “villain”, though the lack of any law-enforcement bodies or formal procedural investigation sets it apart from most films in this genre (or at least those of a more procedural/investigative nature), and the vulnerability of the protagonists provides an especially dangerous and thrilling atmosphere throughout.

Aside from tackling many social issues particularly relevant to Spain at the time of writing, the story encompasses several now-clichéd concepts in modern thriller/horror cinema – found film, snuff films, psychopathy, serial killing – yet does so without seeming contrived. This is achieved by often working these concepts in as features of the plot rather than directly employing them as film techniques, coupled with the rather metafilmic inclusion of film student characters’ discussions of such topics within the script (snuff films are watched by characters in the film, cinematic violence debated with classmates and lecturers alike, and Ángela uses filming a documentary as a guise to interview her “suspects”, for example).

The acting is believable (though not entirely surprising, as many film student roles in the film were played by genuine film students) and the three lead actors would go on to have reasonably healthy careers in mostly Spanish-language cinema (Ana Torrent, Fele Martínez, and Eduardo Noriega). Slightly less believable is that a film written by a student and then filmed inside their faculty on a limited budget in only five and a half weeks could be such an excellent film.

SE7EN (1995)

I don’t think I will ever tire of revisiting this neo-noir masterpiece. As a forensic biologist, it may not surprise many that I am not averse to a good crime film, but of the endless sea of such films this is one of very few that in my opinion possesses the necessary quality of story and acting to not only permit an enjoyable re-watch, but arguably demand at least one – despite one already knowing what’s in the box the outcome. In fact, it is only upon this most recent (at least fifth) viewing of the film that I questioned how an hour-and-one-minute drive could possibly have been taken us from the seemingly eternal torrential rain of the unnamed city in which the majority of the film is set to the bone dry expanse of desert of the final scene – requiring a degree of suspension of disbelief that may not have passed unnoticed if not for the quality of story.

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Aside from the gloomy colour design, weather, and very clever use of lighting (or lack thereof), it’s Seven’s expert use of the unknown and unseen that makes for such an intense experience. I am sure anyone who has lived at one point or another in a large city, particularly one blessed with bad weather (in my case growing up in London and later moving to Glasgow), feels a certain familiarity with “the city” (as close to a name as viewers are given, though known to have been inspired by a rather unhappy time spent by then-struggling screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker in New York). I am sure a large part of what makes this movie so impactful for many is that the events of the film could be unfolding in “our” city, whichever that is; no matter how shocking or sad, the stories that affect how safe we feel will always be the local ones – we can’t just write them off as some far-off evil from which we are safe and sound.

What’s more, none of the murders being investigated are shown on-screen (though the film does end with an execution), instead showing us the aftermath and leaving the rest up to our imagination. This breaks down the audience/film barrier, putting the action inside our heads and thereby forcing us to live the scene. In fact, in two cases – lust and envy – we don’t see the victim at all, and yet they are arguably the two most horrific and chilling crimes in the movie, thanks to both extremity of concept and accompanying performances (Leland Orser and Brad Pitt) so genuinely convincing that it’s hard to believe that you are watching actors and not real victims.

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We are biologically programmed to be afraid of the unknown – the ability to recognise and evade dangers (including identifying potential/novel threats) is a fundamental principle of survival of the fittest – and Seven exploits this masterfully. Until the killer’s surprising (but necessary – the police seemingly little closer to catching him than they were to begin with) decision to willingly hand himself in to the police just over two-thirds in (a surprise designed to include the identity of the actor portraying him; though now common knowledge, Kevin Spacey was not named in any of the film’s marketing or the opening credits), one is permitted an extremely limited picture of who the killer may be. This, combined with a collection of victims spanning a wide range of walks of life and socioeconomic status make him all the more terrifying (he could be anyone) and the crimes all the more unsettling (I am sure most of us can relate in some way, shape, or form to one of the victims).

“The only reason that I’m here right now is that I wanted to be.” – John Doe

The killer’s modus operandi seems particularly powerful in the current real-world climate of “lone wolf” attacks, in which an individual commits a violent act(s) fully knowing that they will/may die (e.g. suicide attack, murder-suicide, or “death-by-cop”) and/or make no attempt to evade capture, rather seeing themselves as a martyr/envoy for their cause. The most striking feature of “John Doe” is not only how sane, but how highly articulate and intelligent he seems (a not-entirely-unique concept, arguably most famously – and successfully – implemented in 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs). The nineties’ shift away from the simple and senseless caricatures that litter the horror and thriller genres (not far from the rather generic serial killer profile of the first suspect in Seven) in favour of people who (if not for the blood stains and bandaged fingertips in this instance) could quite easily pass as lawyers, doctors, professors, or for that matter any other white collar job – the sort of person that society tells us we can trust – is arguably the most terrifying concept of all, as put so succinctly by Morgan Freeman’s Detective Somerset: “He’s not the devil. He’s just a man.”

In the context of his apparently increasing willingness to be typecast and/or accept minor roles in mediocre-yet-commercially-viable movies (though let’s not forget that most of us would be unwilling and/or unable to do any work at all beyond retirement age, let alone into our eighties), Freeman’s Detective Somerset is a refreshing reminder of the myriad outstanding performances that made his name one that could sell almost any movie. His on-screen chemistry with Brad Pitt (another stand-out performance in a filmography containing more than a handful of superb roles in legendary titles) arguably adds more emotional force to the movie than would have been provided by the script alone, as relatively little time is given to the building of relationships between characters or their personal lives. In fact, one of my few criticisms would be the relatively short screen-time given to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Tracy Mills: I believe developing her character would have greatly increased the film’s emotional impact; as it is she seems almost more of a plot device than a character. Spacey’s John Doe, much as Anthony Hopkins did with Hannibal Lecter’s Oscar-winning 15 minutes of screen time, reminds us that sometimes less really is more in the hands of a great actor (albeit one with a less meritorious personal life). He might not be on the screen for long, but in a performance like that, it only takes one word to steal the show…

 

“Detective.”