“Almost all mainstream thrillers seek first to provide entertainment; this one intends to fascinate and appall.”
On September 22, 1995, David Fincher unleashed a new breed of serial killer film into theaters. Often imitated with sub-par results, Fincher’s Seven (or Se7en, which I refuse to call it) was a tense, disturbing thriller with a high concept and slick script by Andrew Kevin Walker. Two cops, the weary, soon to retire Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and the fresh faced, eager to go Mills (Brad Pitt), find themselves investigating a truly bizarre series of murders where a serial killer is offing his victims based on the Seven Deadly Sins. The old cop/young cop dynamic was nothing new (see Lethal Weapon), nor was the concept of an inventive, even artistic serial killer (see Manhunter or Silence of the Lambs). What made Seven remarkable, however, was Walker’s inventive script and Fincher’s gorgeous, moody direction.
Seven was Fincher’s second feature film after the disastrous experience that was Alien 3. Due to the problems of that Alien sequel and Fincher’s behind-the-scenes battles with the producers, there was a good chance he could’ve become a filmmaker written off and tossed aside. Seven was a shock to the system: it was relentlessly bleak, bathed both figuratively and literally in gloomy, impenetrable darkness — yet somehow beautiful to look at, thanks both to Fincher’s unique eye and cinematographer Darius Khondji . Walker’s script cleverly keeps all the murders off screen: this isn’t a slasher movie, and our heroes don’t arrive until after each murder has already happened. Each crime scene is staged meticulously, both by the film’s killer John Doe and by Fincher and his crew. From the bloated “Gluttony” victim who literally was forced to eat until he died, to horrifying “Sloth” victim who appears to be a mummified corpse that suddenly starts moving, Fincher weaves a chilling tapestry of death, the images violently burning themselves into the viewers mind.
As the weary Somerset, Freeman is at his absolute best. The dignified actor might be typecast into “Morgan Freeman roles” at this stage in his career, but in Seven his calm voice and his defeated demeanor carry the film. Somerset has no faith in humanity, and even as the murders grow more and more gruesome, Somerset continues to seem almost nonplussed. “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,” he tells Mills at one point. “But he’s not the devil. He’s just a man.” Pitt, as the newly minted Detective Mills, makes a nice foil to Freeman’s calm, collected character. Pitt is all hothead bluster, kicking in doors at crime scenes without warrants and engaging in foot chases that end up getting him badly injured. The one female role in the film belongs to Gwyneth Paltrow, as Mills’s wife Tracy. New to the never named, constantly rain-drenched city the film is set it, Tracy is miserable, unable to cope with her new surroundings. An incredibly human, masterfully acted moment takes place in the middle of the film between Somerset and Tracy. It’s a moment that a modern thriller would have absolutely no time for. Tracy confesses to Somerset that she’s pregnant, that Mills doesn’t know, and that she’s not sure if she wants to have the baby in city so rotten. Somerset tells her a story from his youth, about how a woman he was with got pregnant, and how little by little he wore her down and convinced her to not have the baby. Fincher keeps the focus in medium shots over each characters shoulders, cutting back and forth to their faces as they listen to each other speak in almost hushed tones. Somerset tells Tracy that if she doesn’t keep the baby, she should never, ever tell Mills about the pregnancy. If she does, however, he advises her to “spoil that kid rotten.” Fincher cuts to Paltrow’s face as this line is delivered, and Paltrow withers at the statement, the saddest, sweetest smile breaking onto her lips as she cries. Its these rare, human moments among all the doom and gloom that drive Seven. These characters aren’t stock movie tropes, they’re human beings, and we want them to survive all this carnage.
However, in the end Seven is a cold, harsh thriller, so survival is not an option. The film subverts expectations yet again by revealing who the killer is well before the finale is in sight. In fact, the killer literally strolls into the police station and turns himself in — the detectives don’t have to do any actual detection to trap him. On top of this, he’s only committed five of his planned seven murders. Why would he give up when, as Somerset puts it, he’s “two murders away from completing his masterpiece”? Spoilers for a twenty year old movie follow, so be warned: John Doe is played by Kevin Spacey, in one of two iconic performances the actor would deliver that year (the other being in The Usual Suspects). Spacey’s John Doe seems cherry picked from other movie killers — he’s got the sophisticated creepy coolness of Anthony Hopkins’s Hannibal Lecter mixed with the sadistic, game-playing glee of Andrew Robinson’s Scorpio Killer from Dirty Harry — but its Spacey’s performance that elevates the character. Giving the character a smarmy righteousness with such a frail-seeming demeanor, there’s a moment where the audience might have become disappointed with this big reveal: this is the psycho the film has been building towards? Some puny bald guy who turns himself in? But Spacey makes John Doe even more chilling in the flesh than he was an off-screen boogeyman. The capture is all part of his plan, and as the detectives end up walking right into his trap, we can see the unsubtle glee sparkling in Spacey’s eye as the characters hurtle closer and closer to catastrophe. It culminates in one of the more shocking thriller film endings, where John Doe reveals he’s murdered Tracy, and had her head delivered in a box to the location he made the detectives transport him to. John Doe wants Mills to murder him, thus completely his masterpiece. Mills, already established to be someone with a hot temper and wracked with grief, obliges, emptying his gun into John Doe. I remember vividly seeing Seven for the first time in the theater, and I remember that at this moment in the film a woman near me in the audience burst into applause, thrilled that John Doe was dead. But even to my then-young mind (I was 12 at the time!) I knew that this clapping audience member had missed the point: John Doe’s death isn’t a victory, and this isn’t a heroic conclusion typical to your standard Hollywood thriller. At the end of Seven, even though he shuffles off this mortal coil with an abundance of bullets buried into his brain, the killer wins. Seven concludes with a haunting, though slightly out-of-nowhere narration (there is no narration anywhere else in the film) from Somsert. With the sun sinking into the horizon (in a cheerfully macabre contrast, the only scene in the film where it’s not gloomy and rainy is also one of the most harrowing moments), returning us to darkness as the remaining characters are bathed in shadow while silhouettes stalk across the screen, we hear Morgan Freeman’s distinct voice: Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”
Today, on the 20th Anniversary of Seven‘s release date, enjoy these videos detailing the making of the film, along with an early interview with Fincher where he talks about Seven and his other work at the time.