Crime Classic: David Fincher’s Seven

We're holding a free screening of a crime classic of your choice next week. Here's a look at one option: David Fincher's stunning Seven...

On the 5th June, we’re holding a free crime classic cinema screening to celebrate the launch of the videogame Murdered: Soul Suspect. You can find out details of the screening, and how you can vote for the film you most want to see, here.

For now, here’s our look back at another of the films you can choose from: the 1995 thriller, Seven.

NB: This piece contains spoilers.

Seven tracks Detectives William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and David Mills (Brad Pitt) as they investigate a spate of serial killings which take their inspiration from the seven deadly sins. As they dig further, the stakes become more personal and the killings become more disturbing until they come face to face with the killer and find events are much worse than they feared.

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David Fincher’s psychological thriller will reach the grand old age of 20 next year, but watching it back, it feels as though it is both much younger and older than its age would suggest. It’s this curious sense of a film out of its time that has ensured it has lost none of its power over the years. The city it takes place in is unnamed and filmed in muted colours. Red is the only bold colour used and only when it feels like a descent into a hellish underworld.

It rains constantly and everywhere appears to flourishing amidst unrelenting decay. Cars look contemporary to the 1990s, but the costumes have largely walked straight out of 1940s film noir with waistcoats and braces the order of the day. Telephones again look contemporary, but there are no computers in the office and Somerset writes his reports on a good, old-fashioned typewriter.

These contradictions feed into the plot itself. Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay feels conventional at first, a ‘one last job’ narrative for Somerset and a ‘big first case’ for Mills, but Seven eschews convention at every opportunity to produce something more unsettling. There are none of the traditional red herrings associated with an investigation plot, a distinct lack of too-obvious suspects to obscure the proceedings. The killer (Kevin Spacey), taunts and manipulates the detectives according to his plan, and though they feel they have gained the upper hand in finding his apartment, the narrative about-turns again as he hands himself in. The two constants within these narrative shifts are Mills and Somerset, caught up in something increasingly dark. 

This darkness and the psychological aspect lie in what the film doesn’t show rather than explicitly reveals in the violent acts that punctuate the narrative. A brief glimpse at the tool used for the Lust killing is enough to make you feel ill, while the after effects of the Gluttony or Sloth killings are skin-crawingly horrible. It feeds into a constant sense of foreboding that grows over the course of the film. There are brief moments of levity or calm, but these soon give way to more disturbing reveals or short, sharp shocks to jolt you back. It is anchored throughout by the reactions of Mills and Somerset, our points of entry into this dank and brutal world.

Brad Pitt gives one of his best performances as the emotional David Mills, a man eager to please but without the necessary experience to do so. His energetic delivery contrasts sharply with Morgan Freeman’s Somerset, a man much calmer and wiser and who has seen far more horror than Mills realises. Their chemistry is well-suited, an odd couple pairing that fits well with their increasing helplessness within their own narrative. Freeman steals the show with his world-weary performance and both are matched step for step by an icily cool Kevin Spacey as John Doe.

During the car journey the three men take towards the climax of the film, they discuss John Doe’s motivations, and their three personalities clash instantly. Mills naively assumes Doe to be crazy, erratic and irrational despite the killer demonstrating that he is anything but. When Doe spells out his reasoning, that he sees a world so morally corrupt that he cannot even be accused of killing innocent people, and that he was sent by a higher power to do so, his delivery only becomes emotional when discussing depravity. He’s a disturbing antagonist precisely because he is the kind of evil that we fear the most: a man who believes wholly in what he is doing. 

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Seven explores that constant presence of evil within a society, the universality of this and the moral apathy and decay that allows it to flourish. It is why the city is unnamed and the time period illusive, why John Doe is given a name applicable to any man if their identity is unknown. This is also reflected in the texts that John Doe draws his inspiration from; the writings of St Thomas Aquinas, Geoffrey Chaucer and Dante Alighieri from the medieval period, John Milton’s Paradise Lost from the 17th century and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood from the 20th. The seven deadly sins are a constant throughout history, just as they are a constant within John Doe’s society. The evil that Mills and Somerset must combat have and will always exist, just as the heroes fighting against it will.

However, that’s about as hopeful as Seven gets, committing to its vision of unrelenting evil entirely until the film’s close. Famously, Fincher and the cast fought to be able to film Walker’s original ending and it is hard to imagine the film remaining so powerful with something different. It’s a depressing, hopeless view of society. In this film, the killer wins. He gets to complete his grand scheme and he corrupts and destroys an honest police officer in the process. The detectives, usually the ones closing in on their quarry, feel helpless and ineffective and on repeated viewings, it becomes clear that Doe has the upper hand throughout the entire film, right from the opening credit sequence.

These titles are some of the best that have ever been produced, used to provide a glimpse into the killer’s world before you even realise what it is you’re seeing. With the use of Nine Inch Nails’ Closer as the music, the credits depict John Doe writing his journals and going through his research. It offers a snapshot of how methodical he is before the first body is even discovered. Even if you’re not aware of what you’re viewing, there is something uneasy in the combination of the music and the images that builds into the mounting sense of dread throughout the film. 

It rewards on repeat viewings, too; the initial apprehension of seeing how it all unfolds is transformed into a knowing dread that plays on dramatic irony to draw out the tension. Mills’ naivety becomes that bit more tragic whilst Somerset’s warnings are chillingly ominous.

Seven is an unrelenting film, meticulously designed to put an audience through the wringer at every opportunity and vastly unpredictable as a result. Despite initially feeling like a generic police procedural, Fincher bucks the trend and produces something that lingers long in the memory.

We’ll be looking back at the other crime classics you can vote for – RoboCop, Minority Report, Silence Of The Lambs – over the next few days. You can read our look back at LA Confidential here

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Screening details and how you can vote are here.

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