SPNAC

“Seven Pounds” Is Guilty of Irresponsibility with Suicide

In Media, Prevention on December 23, 2008 at 10:12 am

[Editor's note: The main premise of this post, written by SPNAC's editor, is based on its author's opinion.]

Although Christopher Orr in a review in the New Republic is quasi-evasive in addressing the particulars because, as he puts it, “much as I’d like to spoil it, I won’t,” there is no question that his criticism of Seven Pounds centers on its ending, in which Smith’s character dies by suicide, a trope which Orr calls “morally grotesque.” His verdict:

Seven Pounds is … a dour, morally beclouded film that confuses generosity and grief, self-abnegation and self-annihilation. Yes, it comes prettily wrapped as the package of holiday uplift it fatuously imagines itself to be. But this is a present best left unopened.

Since I’m not a movie reviewer whose ethic forbids him from “giving away” an ending, I’ll share what a blogger at Paste Magazine writes about it: Will Smith’s character, Ben, announces his suicide in the opening scene then …

… tracks down seven strangers in need: Woody Harrelson plays a blind pianist who gets his eyes, “Ben” gives his lungs to his ailing brother … he gives a single mother his house, some other woman gets his liver, some dude on dialysis takes his kidney, another guy gets his bone marrow, and he gives Rosario Dawson, the movie’s love interest with congestive heart failure, his heart (barf!) … Anyway, yes, the film’s title refers to the “seven pounds” of flesh that Ben gives to [Rosario Dawson's character].

I’m in good company when it comes to not feeling remorseful for that “spoiler,” including New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott, who writes

I don’t see how any review could really spoil what may be among the most transcendently, eye-poppingly, call-your-friend-ranting-in-the-middle-of-the-night-just-to-go-over-it-one-more-time crazily awful motion pictures ever made. I would tell you to go out and see it for yourself, but you might take that as a recommendation rather than a plea for corroboration.

Scott continues with his indictment, calling Seven Pounds “a lugubrious exercise in spiritual bushwa”:

For all its pious, earnest air, Seven Pounds cries out to be remade as an Asian horror movie, so that the deep, creepy grotesqueness of its governing premise might be allowed to flourish, rather than to fester beneath the surface.

Roger Friedman, writing for Fox News, calls Seven Pounds “just gruesome, a horrid misfire … a relentlessly depressing, strange piece of cinema that really has no business being released at Christmas, if ever,” and there are plenty of other high-profile reviews that peg the movie for what it is (perhaps, most succinctly, Scott Foundas in the Village Voice who calls it “a morbid morality play”), but in the end, the reviewer who really says what needs to be said on behalf of the suicide prevention community is, perhaps ironically, “Movie Mom“:

It is not the obviousness and phoniness and manipulation that bothers me as much as the clueless and even condescending immorality of it. No one thinks that suicide, even to benefit others, is a legitimately redemptive act, and it is contemptible and irresponsible of the movie to suggest otherwise.

One wonders, with all that is known about the deadly relationship between  media depictions of suicide and actual suicidal behavior, whether Columbia Pictures or Will Smith even considered the possibility that their film might harm members of its paying audience who might be at risk. Simply but powerfully stated, in a 2005 literature review published in Academic Psychiatry,

Data support an increased number of suicides resulting from media accounts of suicide that romanticize or dramatize the description of suicidal deaths.

[The abridged URL for this post is  bit.ly/poundsguilty .]

[See Comment section: An update to this post in "View Comments" contains a link to an Australian radio talk show interview in which an adolescent psychologist speaks out against the film's possible danger to teenagers as well as a link to a newspaper commentary stating that "any claim that Seven Pounds depicts suicide in a way that normalises, sanitises or glamourises the practice is laughably deluded" (01/08/2009).]

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  1. Unfortunately, the people who receive the “gifts” might feel unearned guilt at what the character “did for them.” He may have left these people with a lot of survivor guilt & emotional turmoil, such as did they say something to make him think they wanted him to do this for them. This is not a simple case of being nice to others; the emotional conflicts are enormous.

  2. In a newspaper commentary in Australian Age, senior writer Jim Schembri concludes that “raising awareness of such an urgent issue as teen suicide is a noble endeavour, and there are many responsible, measured and intelligent ways to go about it. Screaming “foul” over an overlong, self-important Will Smith movie, however, is not one of them.”

    The commentary was written in response to a radio interview with child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg, who argues that the film should have received a more exclusive rating to prevent teenagers from viewing it and that its promotional trailer should include mention of the fact that suicide is a theme in the movie. In the interview, he also says the movie “is not suitable to anybody who has been touched by suicide in their lives.”

  3. I am a survivor of teen suicide. My only child completed his suicide aftrer a 3 year fight with bi-polar disorder with schizoaffective disorder.
    If any survivor is to deal with the loss of a loved one to suicide they first have to learn to say the word itself–“SUICIDE.”
    This acknowledgement of the reality will open the road to healing, pity, self blame. You must come to the point ehere you can make a deliberate choice to go on with Life. It is no individuals fault that your loved one completed suicide.It is a shear moment of insanity making an irational choice to end the pain person is suffering. It has now been six years since Curt, my son, completed his suicide with a gun.
    May the Lord makew his face to shine upon all that have completed suicide and grant them his loving Mercy.
    Additionally, 80% of couples who lose a child to completed suicide wind up in divorce for no rational reason–I was one of those statistics.

  4. My only child died by his own hand at the tender age of 13 (he was only 13 for TWO
    DAYS!) I don’t even know if his “act” was intentional, or if he fell victim to a dangerous “choking game” that has taken the lives of thousands of middle school children. I have grappled with this loss to the extent that I consider myself an expert on sudden violent death, a topic that is complex. I don’t have a problem with the “logic” behind Will Smith’s character (grief makes a person illogical). I do believe this subject matter is not appropriate for the masses. Always, this kind of dark thought is best handled in book form, or at least in an independent film format. I struggle so much about “talking about it leads to it.” That just stigmatizes us survivors further, and we already bear too much silence about this silent and hideous epidemic of suicide. No, I won’t be seeing the film. No I don’t condone what Will Smith’s character does. And yet, I appreciate the examination of how a person suffers from grief. Suffering, and how to survive it, is what should be shown to the masses. Eric was/is my child; his life, not his death, will always be celebrated and spoken of, by his surviving mother.

  5. It’s very easy to turn a blind eye to the truth and blame a communication media that is simply doing what it does best, communicating. You, affected by this sensitive topic either by being a surviving member or a survivor of a suicide attempt should know, ignorance is one of the reasons why suicide rate among teen and youd adults is increasing.

    Suicide thoughts as many other mental “disorders” as some people may call them are still a very misunderstood subject. What’s it the problem with having people learn more about it? What’s the problem with getting people to understand what some of the symptoms a person may show are?

    Do you really think that by not addressing a problem it will simply disappear?

    I’ve been dealing with suicide thoughts for many years now, as long as I can remember and while it gets better during a brief period of time it does not go away. It’s easy to say is a selfish act, but who are you to say such a thing? do you really thing is easy to let go of everything you have achieved during your life? Friends, family, life itself? It’s not, and even though you may feel cheated by the person who committed such a “despicable” act, the fact is, it’s one’s life and we are to decide what to do with it. It’s something that you always hear, “you can do whatever you want with your life” you need to come to realize, that it includes end it.

    During these 5 years I have shown clear signs, depression, lack of enthusiasm, sadness, loneliness, you want to know who have noticed: NOBODY. It’s not that I “think” nobody has noticed, it is that nobody has ever asked me what’s going on with you? or do you need help? like I said, facts.

    You wanna know what selfishness is: It’s to keep living a life you don’t want while others want to live and can’t. So spare me your stupidity, religious crap or whatever you want to call it, it’s not you call. Stop feeling guilty because you did nothing to stop your love ones to do what they did or will do. Mostly likely, there’s nothing you could’ve done anyways.

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