Classic Review: Se7en (1995)

 Se7en is less violent than I imagine most people would remember. Its ugly, damp, mordant atmosphere perfectly introduced with an intricately stylised, morbid and scattered opening credit sequence belies a lack of violence. The creative, grizzly murders left behind for detectives Somerset and Mills – Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt – to dissect and analyse leave such an impression as to make us feel like we’ve actually witnessed the events. In David Fincher’s 1995 crime hellscape masterpiece, we are left to voyeuristically peer at what is left in the wake of violence.

The set up is trite; Somerset is an intelligent veteran of the police force, seven days shy of retirement. He is tasked with introducing replacement Mills – a hot head with experience and ambition who has just moved to the city with his childhood sweetheart (Gwyneth Paltrow) – to his job and to the permanently noisy, obnoxious (and ambiguous) city. There are no real establishing shots of Se7en’s location. In the scene where the two detectives meet, the camera follows them closely, facing away from the street. All we see are two already clashing personas against a backdrop of murky walls, smoke, railings and scattered bin bags. In vehicles, the rain blurs the outside world. Everything about this city is unwelcoming and ambiguously sinister. Before Fincher became known for his tenacity to reality (at least in setting), he found a home in the surreal, Gotham-esque streets of Se7en.

Despite these elements, the world feels like a living thing thanks to Fincher’s insane attention to detail. The sound design is cluttered and constant, muffled car horns and arguments make it impossible to find respite from the gloom. The set design, and framing of each scene allows new details to be uncovered every time I watch this film, be it character quirks or new discoveries in the environment; nothing is half-heartedly created in Se7en.

Se7en as a title comes across as incredibly gimmicky, suggesting a film with a strict adherence to its cliché genre trappings. Much like The Silence of the Lambs or Alien, Fincher’s film overturns cliché and turns it into something resembling an art B movie or as the visual design suggests, a neo-noir with something to say. We expect a thriller that follows a serial killer with a clear pattern (in this case the seven deadly sins) and a conclusive ending and we do get that. But we also get a film that examines violent tendencies and the inherent ability in all of us to do both good and bad. We see a serial killer with motive and an apartment filled with thousands of hand written journals on his hatred of people; he sleeps in a single bed that sits under a hanging red neon cross. He’s a cliché but an intelligent and brilliantly played one (I won’t say by who for fear of spoiling) that mirrors the thoughts and grievances Somerset has against humanity.

This is a film about characters that I could watch talk for hours. It may have influenced titles like Saw and Hostel but it bears little resemblance to them. Some of the murders in this film send chills up my spine but what sticks with me are the reactions and feelings the protagonists have over the events laid out for them. There is a wonderful dinner scene between the two detectives and Mills’ wife. We are surprised when Mills asks his wife how their kids are doing – he doesn’t seem mature enough for children – then we are not when we realise the ‘kids’ are dogs. This scene is the catalyst for the changing relationship between the two colleagues. I was surprised to find Somerset somewhat unlikable and standoffish on re-watch, but his personality is honest and his position becomes more understandable as the film continues. The conflicting personalities offer great character detail; in the aforementioned dinner scene, Mills presents Somerset some wine in a large tumbler glass that Somerset later notices with a look of bemusement. Mills, the optimist, is always moving feverishly, fixing his hair or expressing himself with some eccentricity. Somerset, the pessimist veteran, is always patient and precisely still in nearly every scene. At one point he describes the investigation as “putting everything into neat little piles and filing it away on the off chance it’ll ever be needed in the courtroom. Picking up diamonds on a deserted island, saving them in case we get rescued”. Mills rejects this, “bullshit”. We empathise with both points of view; it is true like Somerset says “so many corpses roll away un-revenged” but we also see why Mills aspires to the good in people. The film wisely portrays them, as intellectual equals, despite their differences, which helps give their viewpoints equal standing.

The brilliant work of both Freeman and Pitt are made possible by a script written by Andrew Kevin Walker, inspired by his time in New York while trying to make it as a screenwriter.

It is the characters, not the murders that form the crux of why this film is deservedly revered. But what surprises me even further is how it has aged. Fincher has always been meticulous with his direction; icy, precise camera pans, cuts, dollies, crane shots and meaningful blocking represent his worlds. His camera is almost omniscient. I sometimes find Fincher’s direction too impersonal but not here and though I can’t quite remember where I heard it, I distinctly remember his response to using handheld technique “fuck handheld”. Despite some of my issues with his direction – especially in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl – I could conceivably see Se7en in theatres today without issue. It doesn’t look like a 22 year-old movie.

Se7en’s noirishly bleak ending recalls Chinatown; supposedly Fincher was mistakenly sent an earlier script with the grim conclusion included and though the studio tried to steer him to something more positive, he and the two lead actors never relented, refusing to make the film without it. I could not imagine Se7en without this event: an unbearably tense conclusion where the two leads come to question their ideas and are left at the mercy of an almost supernaturally adept killer (think The Dark Knight’s version of the Joker but with the added grit of an 18 rating).

Like the violent scenarios we are forced to imagine (yet never witness), Se7en is never far from memory days after watching it.



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