Warning: This write-up contains severe spoilers for “Se7en”
David Fincher’s “Se7en” is a dark film. Dark in tone. Dark in spirit. Dark, literally – Fincher released a select number of prints to theatres after putting them through a process called silver retention, a process which increases the contrast between light and dark by rebonding silver to the film (silver leaches out during conventional film processing).
In the nameless city the film is set in, it’s always raining. Things are in a state of disrepair. Decaying. Paint is peeling from walls, everything is dirty. Thematically, this reinforces the “moral decay” the film deals in. Tonally, it creates a dim and dreary atmosphere which seeps into the viewer. When it seems as though everything is falling apart, it discomforts you, subconsciously. It gets to you. It’s depressing.
The people we see who live there… the non-lead characters… include an angry cop who doesn’t care if a child saw his parents get killed, a junkie, a S&M leather shop owner, a pimp.
This is not a city you’d want to live in.
And there’s a killer on the loose.
Someone is murdering people who personify the seven deadly sins, in a manner which epitomizes the sin itself. An obese man is forced to eat himself to death. Gluttony. An avaricious lawyer is forced to pay his pound of flesh. Greed. An aimless junkie is strapped to a bed to rot. Sloth.
The two cops who catch the case serve as a study in contrasting ideals. One is the world-weary, about to retire veteran. Burned out. Reluctant to accept the assignment. The other is brash and eager. He transferred in to this city. He wants the case.
Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) is the young hotshot who still gives a shit. He’ll be replacing Detective William Sommerset (Morgan Freeman), and the two are given Sommerset’s final week together so that Mills can be shown the ropes. What he’s shown instead is how badly the world can hurt a person.
In Pitt and Freeman, Fincher cast the perfect pair. No one plays exhausted as well as Freeman can. And you’d be hard pressed to find a better brazen hot-head than Pitt. They embody these characteristics.
The characters they create serve not only to forward the plot, but to offer the film’s central discussion as well. Freeman’s Sommerset has given up. Literally. He’s quit. With most cop movies that feature an officer retiring, it’s a narrative gimmick, at best. Here, it’s a reinforcement of the character’s worldview. Sommerset has seen enough. He’s through.
Pitt’s Mills, however is still full of vim and vigor. He wants to make a difference, and believes he still can. He refuses to buy into the apathetic philosophy Sommerset is espousing. He still has hope.
In fact, his home is the brightest environment in the film. With his pet dogs, R&B, and pretty, pregnant wife, Mills’ apartment represents the pleasant, bright world that he’s fighting for. Of course, in the world of “Se7en”, domestic bliss is an illusion. The apartment – too close to train tracks – shakes as if built on a fault line. An inherent instability that foreshadows the utter collapse of it to come.
The two detectives dance to the murderer’s tune, following his trail of bloody bread crumbs only as quickly he allows. They connect the dots as he lays them out, seeing what he wants them to see… finding the bodies as he wants them to find them.
When the two detectives take the lead, the movie gets suddenly frenetic. The world tilts wildly out of balance and suddenly there are gunshots and footraces through tenement buildings. Jumping and running. Oncoming traffic. Mills is beaten and bloodied for his impunity. The killer gets away.
Though they’ve momentarily disrupted his rhythm, the killer, John Doe, remains the maestro. They may have violated his sanctum, but he remains the conductor.
The killings continue.
There’s a perverse fixation in modern society with serial killers. They’re the subject of countless movies and non-fiction crime documentaries. They’re real life monsters. Non-imaginary Boogey Men.
Fincher gives us a fascinating one in John Doe. He kills with a purpose, his murders strung together in a series, each exemplifying one of the seven deadly sins. He’s an evil artist, leaving macabre crime scenes replete with posed victims, each killed in symbolic fashion. Each new victim scratches another sin off the list in morbid fashion. His voluminous writings are part Son of Sam diaries, filled with insane delusional perceptions, and part Unabomber manifesto, spouting dangerous diatribes about society’s ills.
And when he finally appears, shouting for Detectives, fingers bloody from cutting off the skin from his fingertips… he’s the meek looking Kevin Spacey.
Spacey’s name does not appear in the opening credits. Nor was it on any posters, or in the trailer. He is briefly shown earlier in the film as the photographer on the stairs, and you can hear his voice, but even then most people would only momentarily think “Was that… Kevin Spacey?” and move on. His appearance at the Police Station would be a surprise for the audience.
Spacey was coming off an Academy Award winning performance in the previous year’s “The Usual Suspects”, a performance that made quite an impression on movie fans. He was quite a hole card to slow play, here.
His John Doe is one of the most memorable villains of all time. As Mills and Sommerset drive him to the promised location of the final two victims, Doe sits in the back of the cop car, stoic, smug, and soft spoken. Even imprisoned… handcuffed… he’s dangerous. Not even simply due to the final act he has left to play, but due to his forked tongue. Like all great villains, he offers a dangerous element of truth. He offers a dangerous temptation to see his side of things. The world IS twisted. In many, many ways. We HAVE grown apathetic to many of evils… they’re commonplace now. He offers a wicked temptation to see things from his point of view…
John Doe: Innocent? Is that supposed to be funny? An obese man… a disgusting man who could barely stand up; a man who if you saw him on the street, you’d point him out to your friends so that they could join you in mocking him; a man, who if you saw him while you were eating, you wouldn’t be able to finish your meal. After him, I picked the lawyer and I know you both must have been secretly thanking me for that one. This is a man who dedicated his life to making money by lying with every breath that he could muster to keeping murderers and rapists on the streets!
David Mills: Murderers?
John Doe: A woman…
David Mills: Murderers, John, like yourself?
John Doe: A woman… so ugly on the inside she couldn’t bear to go on living if she couldn’t be beautiful on the outside. A drug dealer, a drug dealing pederast, actually! And let’s not forget the disease-spreading whore! Only in a world this shitty could you even try to say these were innocent people and keep a straight face. But that’s the point. We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it’s common, it’s trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon, and night. Well, not anymore. I’m setting the example. What I’ve done is going to be puzzled over and studied and followed… forever.
Of course, “Se7en” isn’t finished with you yet. David Fincher and John Doe author one of the bleakest, darkest conclusions in film history.
The infamous “What’s in the box?” scene.
The final two seven deadly sin victims are Doe himself (Envy), and Detective Mills (Wrath), who is unable to resist executing Doe after learning Doe killed his pregnant wife earlier that morning. It’s a scene of utter despair. The bad guy wins; the hero, crushed. All that he loved in the world reduced to a morbid prop in a perverse play for a sick psychopath’s personal edification.
It’s a scene that almost didn’t happen. When New Line initially purchased the script, they demanded revisions to have the scene removed. However, fate intervened. When they contacted Fincher to gauge his interest in the project, they accidentally sent him the original script. Once they eventually learned of their mistake, New Line attempted to force rewrites again, but Freeman, Pitt and Fincher all said they wouldn’t do the project without the box. Even after production was completed, the studio stayed at it, trying to force reshoots, or to have them use an alternate ending where Sommerset executes Doe. Pitt and Fincher fought them, and kept the original ending intact. Their only concession was the addition of the Ernest Hemingway quote narrated by Freeman at the conclusion of the film.
It winds up being an unrelenting dark movie. A journey into the circles of hell as shown on earth. Given the ending, where the optimistic Mills is hopelessly destroyed, the movie’s tagline ought to have been “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”
Fincher uses a number of techniques to emphasize the film’s themes. The killing scenes are laden with references to Dante’s “Inferno”; one of the primary sources of the seven sins in literature (they are not listed as such in the bible). The gluttony victim was forced to lie face down in food while he ate continuously, as in the Third Circle of Hell where those guilty of gluttony are forced to lie face down in slush, in continuous cold rain while eating. As was the greed victim. In the divine comedy, those punished for greed were bound and laid face down on the ground for having concentrated too much on earthly thoughts. Prior to the lust victim being discovered, a heavy wind is blowing – as in the Second Circle of Hell, were the overly lustful were constantly buffeted by a heavy winds. Sloth was lying in a wet bed, with a ceiling full of air fresheners hanging above him, reminiscent of the Fifth Circle of Hell the Slothful where the Slothful are condemned to lie beneath the surface of the Styx while the Wrathful fight, above.
Add in the decaying setting, the mal-adjusted secondary characters, the bleak ending, and the devilish, evil figure that orchestrates and presides over it all… everything which happens, happens in accordance with his wishes…
Fincher has truly taken us on a tour of Hell with this film. It’s a police procedural, yes. A mystery and a crime drama, true. But it’s also a meditation on the frightening pervasiveness of evil. A bleak vision of the world we live in.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”