Morality Suspended in Seven Pounds

Rosario Dawson and Will Smith in Seven Pounds.

Usually, I am loathe to write about a big Hollywood blockbuster here, where you’d hope to find news of an artful cinematic accomplishment, but when I saw Seven Pounds over my holiday vacation, the need to break form was self-evident.

What was I doing spending my valuable free time at a megaplex? I was away in the Rust Belt, enjoying a leisurely time with family, and there wasn’t much to do. On the most cold and snowy days I made a point of going to the movies every afternoon. (Wouldn’t you?) But I exhausted the area art house cinema’s lineup by day three, leaving me with a scarcity of choices midweek. I’ll confess from the start I chose the film for one idle reason: it was playing at a convenient hour.

I’ll begin with some praise; the film achieves an adequate amount of suspense, although I did catch on rather quickly to the direction of the storyline, it wasn’t obvious how we’d get there. Will Smith and Rosario Dawson create a convincing chemistry between them and, to my surprise, I actually forgot it was Will Smith in a few scenes. That was a welcome escape from what I had grown to expect from his typical action-packed roles.

It could be an acceptable movie if the message at its core weren’t so poisonous.

(From here on I spoil the film’s suspenseful narrative. If you’re inclined to see it, don’t read on!)

What is so toxic? It is the central theme of a man, Ben Thomas (Will Smith), who accidentally kills seven people in a careless car wreck, including his own wife, and attempts to make amends for their deaths by committing suicide and donating his organs to needy individuals post-mortem. In order to discern the character and worthiness of these sick individuals to whom he will give his organs and earthly possessions, Ben impersonates an IRS worker who has the authority to ask probing questions, examine a person’s motives, and leaf through their medical files.

While a person responsible for so many deaths is likely to experience tremendous grief of the sort that makes you question your existence, it doesn’t seem right that that person would go through the trouble of finding all these people in need and researching their value as human beings. If you feel worthless enough to want your own death, wouldn’t you consider anyone more valuable than you, eliminating the entire need for this twisted quest? Of course, I’d go further and say that suicide does not actually atone for a person’s wrongdoing, but that it is a self-centered escape from the culpability that haunts the individual.

I did actually get absorbed in Ben’s suffering and the thrill of new love that blooms with Emily (Rosario Dawson), but I am revulsed at the idea that suicide would be an acceptable end to that suffering. And beyond that, Ben is depicted as a hero for his choice because his organs and gifted possessions improve the lives of others. I am troubled with this representation of an ideal that ultimately degrades the value of life. I have no doubt that Ben’s character could have done far more to mitigate the pain he caused in those deaths had he been alive. He still could have given away his earthy possessions and devoted himself to saving the lost and doomed. The thesis that he gave most because he gave his life is a dangerous one.

I also take issue with characters who benefit from his suicide. Ezra Turner (Woody Harrelson) is a lonesome blind pianist who passes Ben’s character test when he refuses to respond in anger to Ben’s cruel tirade. When he receives the gift of eyes after Ben’s death, Ezra is pictured at a children’s musical recital, leading the joyful song. The celebratory moment is undermined by the fact that Ezra could have been doing the same thing with, or without, his newfound sight. Was Ben’s death really necessary for Ezra’s life to improve? Similarly, we are left wondering if there is lasting change for the battered woman (Elpidia Carrillo) and her two children who receive Ben’s gorgeous beach house. Thrown into the isolated word of wealth and lacking any community, I doubt she will be adequately transformed by home ownership to make the needed changes to herself that will heal her past and prevent future dangerous relationships. Are people really changed by new scenery?

What transforms people is relationship. If Ben had wanted to help these people, he should have stayed alive and loved them. If helping sick people were his ultimate goal, he could have continually given blood and bone marrow – but that wasn’t his aim at all. Ben wanted to die, and he didn’t want to be remembered for that selfish act of taking his own life. He hoped that by donating his organs someone would recognize the value of his life, even if he did not.

Seven Pounds illustrates the power of cinema, in which a filmmaker can manipulate a willing audience to the point where, against their better judgment, cowardice becomes heroism. However, it also takes the viewer down a dangerous road, one where selfishness equals generosity, and wrong becomes right.