Movies That Everyone Should See: “Se7en”

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

69 thoughts on “Movies That Everyone Should See: “Se7en”

  1. Although it is strange to say it, I really like this movie. It is unapologetically dark and twisted, but that is truly the world that we live in sometimes. Not everyone gets a happy ending always. And I like that this is how the movie is portrayed. I absolutely agree that it is a movie that everyone should see. Awesome write up!

    • Cool, man, glad you approve. 😀

      I’ll tell ya, I certainly wouldn’t want EVERY movie to be this dark, but when they’re so well done, you have to love ’em.

      This movie is awesome. I’m a big fan too.

  2. Despite the fact that the acting and writing on this movie was superb and the fact that it was very well directed, I hated this movie. I hated it so much that I wasn’t going to go see The Game. Even after people talked me into going, insisting it didn’t end similarily to Seven, I nearly walked out of the movie close to the end. I was really going to read the riot act, so to speack. I did stay until the end and was much happier than when I watched Seven. I really don’t like my escapism entertainment to end so horribly.

    • Speak, not speack. But I will say that if anyone is a student of fims (either informally or as a course of study), you are right, they must see this. Even not liking the film on a personal level, I have to admit is was brilliantly done.

      • Well, of course, too, not everyone is as adverse to their entertainment capped with the occasional, horrifying ending. 😀

        Which this was, certainly. There’s no doubt. Personally, it blew my mind… that they would be so ballsy as to end the movie that way. It’s still shocking! I cant believe they did that! LOL

        But I understand what you’re saying… I do. I didnt have that same experience, personally, but I hear you…

  3. Yes Fogs, yes! Seven is one of my favourite films, even though it has one of the most destroying endings of a film I’ve ever seen. It’s bizarre but even though he’s one of the most deplorable characters in film, there’s something about Doe that makes you admire his twisted creativity and relentless torture right to the very end.

    • Yeah, Doe is frighteningly appealing. There’s certainly something about him that has a sick allure…

      I found myself wondering who would win if I did a great debate. Him or Hannibal Lecter? I’m sure it would be Lecter, he’s way too popular. But theyre both great performances and sick characters.

      • THAT’S a good question. In the end, I have to go Doe, by a narrow margin. 😀

        Lecter has that impulsiveness that somehow would come back to haunt him. He’d pounce like a vampire at some point, but Doe would be three steps ahead of him and he’d wind up as some bloody display.

        “Cannibalism” carved over his body. LOL

        Not that Doe wins as my FAVORITE… jury would be out for a long time, there!

  4. Great review! I love this movie, but it definitely is one you have to be careful recommending. I was loaning a friend several films (many from your must see list) and luckily he watched most of the others before he got to Se7en because after that he said he really had to question my taste in movies, which lead to a really good discussion, but I have had other people tell me they won’t watch another Fincher film after viewing this one as well. The fact it is so polarizing speaks to how well made it is.

    • Yeah, I can see that. Thankfully all of my friends are also a little sick, so we’re all big fans of this one. LOL

      I guess that Fincher has done as many challenging, dark films as he has broadly accesible ones. Fight Club and Girl With the Dragon Tattoo both have reasons to be cautious about recommending them to others, as well.

      Still… I love ’em. Glad you’re on board with this one, at least!

  5. Hieronymous Bosch painted twisted visions of life on earth and hell, even “The Seven Deadly Sins”. This film gave me the same nightmarish feelings. “Seven” was more European in temper than main stream Hollywood. Could almost rate an NC-17. While I love it, it’s a precautionary MTESS.

    • Just googled that… LOL. Those paintings are like Dante meets Dali. LOL

      Meanwhile, outside of the spoiler warning, I attach no warning labels to this. Wholehearted recommendation from me. I can understand how some may be adverse, but IMO, theyre the ones missing out.

      This movie is a masterpiece.

  6. I couldn’t agree more that this film is one that everyone should see – a film that while wickedly grisly, contains precious little on-screen violence. What’s more, it’s a story that talks a lot about “the city”, and yet cleverly never identifies which city it is – allowing the story to become more universal.

    One thing though: You might have already dealt with this in a previous MESS entry, but if you’re trying to convert those who haven’t pulled the trigger yet, wouldn’t it work a little better if you didn’t write about the film right down to the bitter end? Could just be me, but I think it’s possible to underline a film’s importance without tipping off it’s ending (and the surprise identity of its villain).

    Great post.

    • “if you’re trying to convert those who haven’t pulled the trigger yet”

      I’m not, though, actually. The way I see this series is, most people already HAVE seen these movies, that’s one of the reasons they get chosen. Pop culture prominence is a big selection factor.

      Thus, the focus is more on a break down of the movie, an anaylsis of its qualifications for greatness, usually some making of elements or thematic analysis… but the target audience is not actually people who havent seen the films.

      I gave it a spoiler warning up front due to the fact that there are actually pretty severe spoilers for people on this particular movie.

      But I dont know if I could write something about Se7en without addressing the finale. Particularly now that its nearly 20 years old.

  7. This is weird. I was going along, reading your review, and I suddenly noticed that I had seen the part where they have Spacey in the back of the car before! My dad and I were flipping through channels probably about five or six years ago, and that’s the portion of the movie we saw before we changed the channel. Weirdest sense of deja vu ever, because it was such a creepy scene…. and now it’s haunting me on the internet….
    I definitely have to check out the rest of the movie….

    • DEFINTELY. 😀

      If you havent seen it? Get to it. VERY CREEPY scene. Seriously. In fact, I think the whole movie is really skin crawly. LOL.

      Hope you do get around to watching it hunter, its definitely a good one!

  8. Going to have to skip this for now and circle back at a later date — it’s one of those movies I haven’t seen. So, you know, you can take your shot at me again. 😀

    Really like the artwork you lead with though. Very cool looking.

  9. Great review Dan. This movie always gets me tense, scared, and just out-right disgusted even though I’ve seen it almost 8 times by now. Those last 15 minutes just hit you where it hurts and it’s one of the shining moments of Fincher’s career. Although, there are plenty more of them for that guy.

    • I totally know what youre saying. I’ve seen it several times myself and yet it still gives you the creeps, you know? That ending, good lord. How can you not feel like you’ve been kicked in the teeth?

      This absolutely is one of the prime jewels in Fincher’s crown. May still be my favorite, too. I would HATE to have to choose between this and Fight Club. LOL

  10. As for the head in the box scene, my Bluray digibook talks about why Fincher wanted it in the movie so badly. He said that in 50 years after he’s forgotten, some 20 somethings will say “I saw a movie on TV. I dont remember what its called or who was in it, but it was that movie with the head in the box.”

  11. Great write up Fogs. The only note I would add is a bit more about Mills’ wife. She is included as the redemption, to Mills and to some degree to Somerset as well, and certainly to Doe. How else is envy his sin. Her role, though smaller than the other leads is vital to the culmination of Doe’s plan.

    Truly a brilliant film (Fincher’s best, although Fight Club gives it a run for it’s money.) and definitely a worthy MTESS (although not a film that everyone will like)

    • Yeah, difficult movie for a lot of people to cope with, for sure.

      Kind of realized I was giving young Mrs Mills the short shrift as I was going along. Not much I could do, kind of felt like it was difficult to work her in. You’re right though, she plays a huge role in establishing the brightness and hope in the movie…

      … for Doe to crush, lol

  12. Though I don’t usually give comments or take part with discussions but I’m an avid reader and I can surely say that this review is the best I’ve read so far from you since I subscribed. Totally agree with everything. Love this movie! I don’t know when was the first and only time I’ve seen this but I can’t really forget about it. It still gives me the creeps each time I hear about Se7en and every time I hear talks about the seven deadly sins, it always brings me back to this movie clear as crystal as if I’ve watched it recently and for a hundredth time. Great review!

    Just one thing though, I can’t remember if it was mentioned in the movie why John Doe removed all the skins on his fingers…could you refresh me again about his identity which he was trying to hide? Oh well, I think I need to watch it again. LOL

    • Well, awesome! First off, thank you, I appreciate that. This was a fun one to write… Unlike a lot of movies I do in the series, I didn’t have to rely on making of stuff and whatnot. 😀

      After that, glad you joined the fray! Love hearing people’s thoughts, I really like to encourage comments, so, thanks for posting!

      If you wind up watching it again, that wouldn’t be a bad thing… But Doe supposedly sliced his fingers do as not to leave fingerprints. Of course, he would leave blood, which is worse, but that was almost 20 years ago, so… Lol

      • Lol…that lead me to ask Mr. Google when was DNA first used in criminal investigations…and that was in 1986 in Britain by a professor (Alec Jeffreys) who was assisting the British police in solving two separate rape-murders and only in 1995 in the US for O.J. Simpson’s trial, the same year that this movie was released. Well, that’s like a trivia…haha. Thanks and you’re welcome! 🙂

  13. Every minute of this film is worthy of its inclusion in MTESS Fogs. Excellent choice sir and fantastic write-up as always. This has to be one of (if not) the darkest movies I’ve ever scene. In the serial sub-genre The Silence Of The Lambs gets all the praise but I prefer this.

    • I would hate to have to choose between them… Chris from “Terry Malloy’s” and I were debating John Doe vs Hannibal Lecter here earlier…

      Which do you think would win if we set them against each other? 😀

  14. That’s a tough one but I’d go for Doe. That might only be out of favouritism but he has that added edge of not giving a shit. He’s willing to die. Keith done a post on this recently as well.

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