I already loved Seven Pounds when it came out 10 years ago. I was one year out of my divorce and reading a lot of spirituality to figure out how to make my new life my best life. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People was already the guiding force of my life since I graduated high school, but elements of The Secret (the gratitude and positive attraction, not the greed) and Eckhart Tolle gave me new building blocks. So when Will Smith played a man embarking on the most extreme acts of generosity imaginable, I totally got it. I had no idea how much more the world would need this message a decade later.
Spoiler warning for a 10-year-old movie I’m still trying to convince you to see, but I don’t consider it a spoiler. It’s just intelligent storytelling that doesn’t tell you what’s happening as it’s happening, but you are supposed to follow along. The very first scene is Ben (Smith) calling 9-1-1 for his own suicide. Maybe you think it’s a fakeout opening, but it’s not. Seven Pounds is the story of why he’s killing himself.
Ben is looking for the most deserving people to make amends for what he’s done. But to do this he provokes people to test them. I don’t necessarily agree with baiting a blind man (Woody Harrelson) but it’s dramatic, and it would take the most humble person in the word not to lash back out at Ben.
I like the idea that Ben has very strict criteria for who is deserving. He’s not out to help just any leech on society. Generous people should be discerning, and maybe when it’s life and death we can be as extreme as Ben. Ben looks for people with both medical and financial needs, and when Emily (Rosario Dawson) needs a heart transplant, it should be clear whose heart Ben intends to donate.
Finding the seven people most deserving of Ben’s organs and assets is a profound way to make amends. Here’s the conundrum. By making such an elaborate sacrifice, Ben goes above and beyond redemption for his sin. I mean, just killing himself would be the sort of eye for an eye justice that doesn’t work. Providing for seven other people is a noble sacrifice. We need people like that to stay in the world and keep making it better, but if he doesn’t kill himself then he can’t donate those organs and won’t have atoned for his crime.
Ben caused an automobile accident that took seven lives. He was an otherwise good person, just careless, so it’s not a leap to imagine he can’t live with himself. Ideally, there would be a way to give good back to society for the rest of his life and he would be able to forgive himself, but this is drama. Ben is committed to giving up his own life for seven others and I’m going with him.
It’s even more relevant today as men are caught having caused women (and sometimes other men) trauma, and in some cases their careers. These abusers have made shallow gestures of amends that don’t feel proportional to the misdeeds they committed (and committed on purpose, not accidentally like Ben did.) I don’t expect real people to give their lives, or even organs like kidneys to make amends. The point of Seven Pounds is to have high standards for atonement.
People need to have high standards for their atonement if they want to be forgiven. When Brett Kavanagh complains he’s had a rough few weeks, when Louis C.K. jokes he lost $35 million, that kind of superficial sacrifice wouldn’t make Ben sweat on a Tuesday. Or Alamo Drafthouse had talks about sexual harassment and posted a code of conduct, but we should have higher standards they have to meet before it’s back to business as usual (including but not limited to direct apologies to the survivors which never happened). The same old boilerplate shouldn’t cut it in 2018.
We’ve seen people punish themselves but Ben donates bone marrow without anesthetic. He is self-loathing in a way that his friends and family beg him not to torture himself, but words can’t fix that. Love can, but even their love isn’t getting through to Ben. Ben’s love for Emily almost does, but the one person who might convince Ben to live will die if he does.
Ben caused a fatal accident while texting and driving on his Blackberry. Smartphones got fancier but people haven’t stopped texting and driving. Sadly, I don’t think any amount of cautionary tales can convince people to put their phones down. They won’t get it until they are traumatized and have caused irreparable harm with their negligence.
One issue that doesn’t come up is Ben never meets two worthy candidates for one of his organs. That would be some drama if he had to choose. And his brother [Michael Ealy] points out that Ben is playing God using the IRS resources to find his candidates. Even if he’s doing it t help people that is playing God. There is some moral ambiguity, but Ben is committed to his plan and so is the movie.
Smith always found the spiritual side of his blockbusters. Like I Am Legend was really about needing people and I, Robot was about survivor’s guilt. Seven Pounds is a sound dramatic story to express remorse in an outrageous way. That’s probably what led him to Collateral Beauty too, which went overboard and ended up doing worse by a man suffering grief. He cameoed in Winter’s Tale though which was magnificently bonkers.
Seven Pounds made $69.9 million in the U.S. which is pretty good for not a typical Will Smith action movie, feel-good drama like Pursuit of Happyness or rom-com like Hitch. It was Smith’s “one for me” after a string of hits. I didn’t hear many people talk about it in 2008 and I certainly don’t now, so I hope I can bring Seven Pounds back into the spotlight. The path to redemption and bettering society has already been laid out by centuries of wise thinkers and artists. We only have to start following the path.