I can’t tell you exactly when I first saw David Fincher‘s Se7en. I definitely saw it in theaters on or around when it was released on September 22, 1995, and after seeing it I know I quickly ran to purchase the film’s soundtrack, not because I necessarily loved Howard Shore‘s score, but because that’s what I did back then. In the days before short theatrical windows and immediate DVD releases, purchasing the score was my way of preserving the experience of seeing a movie I truly loved. In this case I could listen to Shore’s “Suite from Se7en” or “Portrait of John Doe” and immediately find myself back in the seedy, noir world Fincher envisioned, Andrew Kevin Walker scripted (read it here*) and Darius Khondji photographed.
It was the films of David Fincher that first caused me to start looking at movies differently. Se7en and then Fight Club were revelatory for me before I finally started exploring classic cinema, and not in the same way a film such as The Matrix may have caused my eyeballs to bulge, asking, “How did they do that?” Instead, a film such as Se7en affects me on a much deeper level. The darkness takes over. This is the downward spiral into the mind of a serial killer and the effect it has on the two men (Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman) attempting to capture him. Men that eventually find themselves actively participating in his sick little world, as he commits murders corresponding with the seven deadly sins — gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, pride, lust and envy.
Revisiting it again in preparation for this piece, I started to notice something I hadn’t before, that being the intimately small confines of almost each and every scene. This is a movie that very easily could be adapted into a stage play and I think that’s part of what makes it so immediately sinister. While it never specifically tells us what city the story takes place in, the environment is very much a part of every scene. There’s a texture to Se7en and most every scene and set has its own quirks — the rotting spaghetti sauce and cockroaches surrounding the Gluttony victim, the air fresheners hanging from the ceiling surrounding the Sloth victim and David (Pitt) and Tracy’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) apartment, shaking and rattling as the train roars by. Pouring rain blurs the background, drenches the mood and creates an uncomfortable feeling inside most every room as people sift through the darkness, wet and weary from the weather and the weight of the task at hand.
Fincher doesn’t offer up a moment of true daylight until the film’s end, which subsequently is its darkest moment. However, as Fincher says in the audio commentary included on the film’s DVD and Blu-ray releases, this wasn’t intentional, he just didn’t have the means to soak the final scenes with rain machines. We can only imagine an image of Somserset (Freeman) opening “the box” in the driving rain with Mills, gun aimed at John Doe (Kevin Spacey), soaked and dripping in the distance.
On that same commentary Pitt talks about his performance in this final scene, referencing Sean Penn‘s performance at the end of James Foley‘s At Close Range (1986) saying, “There was this complete change in him. There was something that Penn did there that you knew, from that moment on, what he’d experienced, life would never be the same again. He would never be the same.”
As far as I’m concerned, this is one of Pitt’s best performances and he only gets better in Terry Gilliam‘s Twelve Monkeys, which was released the same year and for which he was nominated for an Oscar.
Pitt’s performance as Mills is something of a “go get ’em” cowboy of a detective who thinks he’s put in his time and knows what he’s in for as he transfers to a city clearly meant to be understood as something of a criminal hell hole. “I wasn’t standing around guarding the Taco Bell, alright? I worked homicide for five years,” he tells Somerset as soon as the two first meet. Meanwhile, Somerset is the complete opposite and Freeman plays him with a fatherly authority. He’s not one to be questioned and it isn’t long before he has Mills’ full respect, though the two still battle back and forth over Somerset’s cynicism and negative opinion of human nature.
I just don’t think I can continue to live in a place that embraces and nurtures apathy as if it was virtue.
You’re no different. You’re no better.
I didn’t say I was different or better. I’m not. Hell, I sympathize; I sympathize completely. Apathy is the solution. I mean, it’s easier to lose yourself in drugs than it is to cope with life. It’s easier to steal what you want than it is to earn it. It’s easier to beat a child than it is to raise it. Hell, love costs: it takes effort and work.
As he admits, Somerset has embraced apathy with retirement only days away, wanting to go “far away from here” as he says at one point in the film. Mills senses some of this, but still finds it hard to believe in such cynicism saying, “I don’t think you’re quitting because you believe these things you say. I don’t. I think you want to believe them, because you’re quitting. And you want me to agree with you, and you want me to say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re right. It’s all fucked up. It’s a fucking mess. We should all go live in a fucking log cabin.’ But I won’t. I don’t agree with you. I do not. I can’t.”
Considering these quotes and Somerset’s overall philosophy throughout the film it’s easy to see why Fincher dislikes the voice over at the end of the film when Somerset says, “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” The line was added following test screenings. The thought was, ending the movie with Somerset saying, “See you around,” was just too dark. Well, the entire film is dark, why betray a character so entirely at the end of the film? No one is going to walk out of this movie feeling “good” and that quote certainly isn’t going to change that.
Somerset remained on the case, in my opinion, not out of a want to fight for the world, but out of a scholarly curiosity. John Doe became the physical embodiment of all he thought of the world. As he says, “If we catch John Doe and he turns out to be the devil, I mean if he’s Satan himself, that might live up to our expectations, but he’s not the devil. He’s just a man.”
Despite the Satan reference, I think John Doe lives up to Somerset’s expectations as a man that represents a society he’s come to loathe and want to escape from. He’s the final nail in the coffin, taking things to such a depraved level there is nothing else Somerset will ever experience to match it and on top of that Doe has destroyed any and all hope to fight for the world Mills may have had.
All that being said, Se7en is not a film I revel in for its darkness and depravity, but for its execution. Fincher has embraced the darkness and made it a character, John Doe may be just a man, but the mere idea of him is the darkness that enshrouds each and every scene. As the beams of Mills and Somerset’s flashlights cut through the darkness, the darkness still closes in. We begin with the idea this is a film about two detectives investigating a serial killer and we walk away realizing it’s a film about a serial killer closing in on two detectives and it’s utterly chilling in its effectiveness and it’s ability to create a character piece wherein one of the main characters isn’t seen until the final 30 minutes, though he’s felt in the shadows throughout.
Going back to the film’s soundtrack, while not only was David Bowie‘s “Hearts Filthy Lesson”, which plays over the end credits, not included, neither was Coil’s remix of Nine Inch Nail‘s “Closer“, which is used during the film’s opening titles. Directed by Kyle Cooper and edited by Angus Wall, these opening titles, are among the very best to ever grace a silver screen.
Almost a mini-movie unto itself, the images seen during this sequence stick in your head and become just as much a part of your subconscious as anything else you’re about to see and once those notebooks appear later in the film your mind can’t help but to flash back to the sick imagery. To the right you can listen to the Blu-ray audio commentary with Fincher, Pitt and Freeman, but if you are interested in a full dissection of how these credits were made visit Art of the Title’s incredible piece exploring every aspect including the end credits.
After the failure of Alien 3 in 1992, Fincher went back to directing music videos only to return three years later with Se7en. Budgeted at $33 million the film has gone on to make over $327 million worldwide and, despite the depravity of films such as Zodiac and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, still, in my mind, his darkest and greatest film to date.
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*For educational purposes only.