By now, David Fincher’s 1995 serial killer thriller should be hopelessly passé. More than a decade of cheap TV murder mysteries and needlessly sadistic horror movies, all of which have borrowed freely from Fincher’s blackly recognisable visual style, must surely have stripped Seven (or Se7en) of its murky appeal.
That Fincher’s movie relies so heavily on style over logic, with a shock ending (“What’s in the box?”) that probably ranks alongside The Sixth Sense as the most widely known denouement of the 90s, should also make it an unrewarding candidate for repeat viewings.
And yet, 15 years on from its initial release, here comes Seven once again, appearing in high definition for the first time.
Morgan Freeman stars as Somerset, the world weary detective who, after 35 exhausting years on the force, has just six days to serve before retirement. Spending lonely evenings in his sparse flat, he drowns out the wailing of the gloomy city outside with a ticking metronome.
At the scene of a bloody homicide, Somerset meets Mills (Brad Pitt), his replacement and polar opposite: cocksure, energetic, and filled with aggressive positivity. Where Somerset is reserved, thoughtful and quiet, regarding each crime scene with infinite care, Mills shouts, sulks and wields his torch like a child with a lightsaber.
It’s not long before Mills and Somerset are asked to forge an uncomfortable allegiance. A sadistic killer has embarked on a series of gruesome crimes and targets victims with no obvious link. A morbidly obese man is tied up and forced to eat himself to death. A high profile lawyer is coerced into cutting off a pound of his own flesh.
Mills, whose enthusiasm far outstrips his intellect, is stumped. The quiet, scholarly Somerset, meanwhile, spots the connection with a brief trip to the library. Using the seven deadly sins as the basis for his crimes, their quarry is performing a grotesque sermon to what he sees as a godless, evil city.
But despite Somerset’s intelligence, the bodies continue to mount, the criminal always one step ahead. As Somerset laments in one memorably poetic exchange, “We’re collecting all the evidence, taking all the pictures and samples, writing everything down, noting the time things happen. That’s all. Putting everything into neat little piles and filing it away on the off chance it will ever be needed in the courtroom. Picking up diamonds on a deserted island, saving them in case we get rescued.”
Seven continues along similarly bleak lines, as Mills and Somerset are outwitted at almost every turn. Even their discovery of the killer’s home, a dingy flat whose only apparent light source is a huge neon cross suspended above a moth-eaten bed, brings them little closer to catching him.
The anonymous killer continues leading the detectives on his grim waltz, luring them, and the viewer, to a conclusion that is both disturbing and grimly inevitable.
Following the debacle that was Alien 3 (which we’d maintain has its own merit, despite its inferiority to the movies that came earlier), Seven saw David Fincher return to feature directing with assured style.
The unremitting darkness of Alien 3 was used to better effect in Seven, and Fincher invests every scene with palpable tension and menace. Indeed, Fincher’s direction, along with Darius Khondji’s prowling cinematography, adds far more tension than is present in Andrew Kevin Walker’s script.
While Seven‘s screenplay is well-written, its plot is fairly formulaic if its sadistic crimes are overlooked. The odd couple detective pairing, the cop with six days to retirement, and the sadistic serial killer are all movie tropes that have been played out many times before and since.
It’s the heavyweight performances of Fincher, Freeman and an uncredited Kevin Spacey that propel Seven into the major league of genre thrillers. Freeman’s turn as Somerset is brilliantly nuanced, turning a fairly stock character, the world-weary, crumpled cop, into something far more tender and engaging than it would otherwise appear on a written page.
Pitt’s performance as Mills is less subtle, but works well in the context of the film, his coarse dialogue (“Just because the fucker’s got a library card doesn’t make him Yoda”) sparking off perfectly against Somerset’s quietly astute observations.
And for all the horrific moments suggested by Seven‘s crimes, Fincher remains restrained throughout. Scenes of explicit violence and bloodletting are kept to a minimum, with the killer’s deeds related through the picking over of crime scenes, or the occasional ugly sheaf of photographs.
Fincher is also wise enough to offset his darker scenes with ones of unexpected beauty. A sequence shot in an after-hours library provides soothing respite, while a descent into a hellish, crimson nightclub basement is so disturbingly raw that it appears to have left an indelible impression on director Gaspar Noé, whose films Irreversible and Enter The Void both contain strikingly similar moments.
Howard Shore also deserves a mention here, for a score that provides a perfect counterpoint to Fincher’s visuals, with prowling, murmuring strings building to a hackle-raising crescendo.
It’s the quality of Seven‘s production and acting that makes it such an engaging genre classic. Even as repeated viewings throw up glaring plot holes, the detail in Gary Wissner’s art direction is often startling. Viewed on Blu-ray, this detail is more evident than ever, with flickering torches lighting up the oddly beautiful textures of peeling paint and rotten wood.
A brief scene, in which Mills recounts the details of a fatal shooting as dazzling sunlight floods into a moving car, is starkly engaging, the only respite in a film of otherwise unrelenting rain.
Fincher’s early films, while very different in terms of genre and plot, have strikingly common themes, most obviously in their examination of flawed protagonists and moral decay. In Alien 3, Sigourney Weaver’s weary heroine Ripley is as much an alien as the titular creature. There’s a suggestion that the two are inextricably linked, as though the acid-spewing monster is an inhuman version of herself.
In Seven, this theme is continued, with its killer representing the pitiless flipside to Somerset, his smoothly delivered condemnation of the city’s moral decay worryingly similar to remarks Somerset made earlier in the film. Their reactions to that decay may be different, but their opinions are not.
As other, lesser genre thrillers pass into the landfill of movie history, Seven remains largely undiminished. Its shots, tone and ideas may have been repeatedly stolen, but Seven, along with the remarkable Fight Club, remains one of David Fincher’s finest, most enduring cinematic achievements.
The Film:The Disc:
Seven is out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.