by HELEN GEIB
Seven Pounds is a film of some good parts, but the whole falls very far short of living up to its best components.
The script by Grant Nieporte and direction by Gabriele Muccino are skillfully calculated to elicit tears. People all around me were crying by the story’s climax and I almost joined them despite my critical reservations. Will Smith delivers a lead performance of dominating intensity and Rosario Dawson is luminous as the love interest; they work hard and often effectively to sell the material. On the negative side, that material is contrived and superficial, significant flaws in a psychological drama of evidently serious purpose.
[Aside from a few minor plot points, everything discussed in this review is directly revealed by or may be inferred from the film’s trailer. However, if you are concerned about spoilers, this is your warning.]
Ben Thomas (Smith) is tormented by guilt over causing a traffic accident that killed several people. He decides to commit suicide. To justify his premature escape from his pain-filled life, he recasts it as a grand act of atonement: he will arrange his affairs so his body can be harvested for life-giving organ and tissue transplants. Not content with having played God on the highway, he decides to hand-pick the lucky recipients of his charity to ensure that only “good” people will benefit. He employs deception, cruelty, and emotional blackmail to achieve this end; causing other people pain is justified by the importance and gravity of his purpose.
Needless to say, this is not the interpretation intended by the film. Ben is the hero of a mainstream Hollywood film; Seven Pounds intends for the audience to like him and grieve for him. There is a latent tension between the film’s insistence that Ben is a good man broken by a single mistake and the compelling evidence of his actions that he is self-centered and manipulative, more deserving of opprobrium than admiration.
The basic visual building block of Seven Pounds is the close-up of Ben’s face contorted by anguish. The filmmakers operate according to the principle that suffering – suffering in itself, divorced from the sufferer’s thoughts and actions – ennobles. Ben feels really, really bad about those people getting killed, even though it was an accident and he never meant for something like that to happen. In the scheme of the film, that proves he is a good person who deserves the audience’s sympathy. The film forgives him for his sins in the pursuit of redemption, rewarding him with a beautiful romance, a better reason to die, and a lover who will always preserve the memory of his sacrifice.
Ben’s deeds consistently contradict the film’s positive reading of his motives. It is notable that he does not attempt to emulate the “good” people he professes to admire. He commends others for doing the right thing even when nobody is watching, but demands recognition for his own good deeds. He runs roughshod over his best friend’s and brother’s feelings, actually coercing his friend into becoming his accessory. Instead of taking the difficult path of seeking to make amends to the people he has hurt, he plays fairy godfather to strangers. He lies, cheats, and steals to accomplish his goal, yet does not doubt he is doing the right thing. He gives because it makes him feel good about himself.