Is David Fincher’s first serial killer opus still an all-time classic?

Who made it?: David Fincher (Director), Andrew Kevin Walker (Writer), Arnold Kopelson, Phyllis Carlyle (Producers), New Line Cinema.

Who’s in it?: Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow, R. Lee Ermey, Richard Roundtree.

Tag-line: “Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Envy, Wrath, Pride, Lust.”

IMDb rating: 8.7/10 (Top 250 #22).

David Fincher’s Seven (or, to use its stylised moniker, Se7en) is as dark and disturbing as modern Hollywood cinema gets. The hook that gives the film its title – seven deadly sins, seven deadly murders – is the kind of high-concept gem that makes you wonder why no-one had thought of it before. A sleeper hit, it sparked a cycle of serial killer films in the 90s and sits triumphantly at the top of the pile. Critically praised and, more importantly, commercially successful, Seven is the rare case of a mainstream film that offers no ray of hope. Its distributor, New Line Cinema, dubbed the film a “psychological thriller,” that bullshit tag studios give to horror movies when they want to be taken seriously. If you think labelling it as such is inaccurate, just picture the ending. Fincher set out to shock audiences and he succeeded.

Seven represents the notion of a genre hybrid, making it difficult to pigeonhole. The film blends many conventions to tell its narrative. Fincher’s picture might feature multiple murders and a creative killer, but it is, first and foremost, a detective story. The tale is taken from the perspectives of Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman), two cops at the opposite ends of their careers. The investigation is the focus, and unlike other serial killer films, we never see the murders transpire on film, only their bloody aftermath. From the oblique, cold opening to the sickening final gambit, Seven is an unremittingly bleak picture. Fincher fills the frame with consistent dread. We want Mills and Somerset to find the perpetrator, and the closer they get, the tenser we get as a viewer. The ongoing sense of threat is a key hallmark of the slasher film, and while Seven is nothing of the sort, it almost fits comfortably into that mold.

On paper, it’s easy to see how this might have turned out differently. We are treated to an overly-familiar set-up: a young, reckless cop is teamed with an ageing (and soon to retire) veteran to crack the case. Audiences had just seen a similar dynamic in Lethal Weapon 3 (1993), where Danny Glover was mere days away from retirement, just like Somerset. Yet Fincher and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker are aware of the action movie lineage and use the clichés in a wholly different context. This gave the filmmakers the freedom to ignore the genre rulebook and surprise the audience. There is nothing formulaic about the modus operandi of villain John Doe… you almost wonder how Riggs and Murtaugh would have dealt with him.

Seven starts to work on you the moment it begins, via an amazing opening credits sequence that puts you in Doe’s head. Taking months and many thousands of dollars to complete, the main titles perfectly sum-up the world Fincher has created; a pessimistic place marked by suffering. The city itself is never named – it could be any urban dystopia. The film was shot in Los Angeles, although you’d never realise it. Like Blade Runner (1982) before it, Seven takes great relish in presenting a metropolis doused with incessant rain and pervasive gloominess.

While the tone is overbearingly dour at points, the wonderful hook of the mystery locks the audience’s attention. The reason so many serial killers films are made is because they provide a backbone the writer can hang a story on. It gives the proceedings a drive… an end goal. One could say they also entice our morbid curiosity. Seven tells a story that could only exist in the movies, but its such a beautifully told piece. Darius Khonji’s incredible cinematography guides us along purposefully, and this surely one of the most gorgeously grotty films in history. The only flick that comes close to being as masterfully unpleasant is The Silence of the Lambs, which could be called a precursor to Seven in many ways. Like that classic, some were put off by the grislier details, mainly due to Rob Bottin’s make-up effects used on the victim’s bodies. No matter how highbrow the film occasionally is, Seven still wallows in its excesses. It’s little wonder that Walker originally submitted the script to a low-budget video label which specialised in schlock. Under a lesser filmmaker, this could have been run-of-the-mill.

For a start, Doe might have been mishandled as a character. The serial killer well had become stale by the time Fincher made the film. Little effort was put into characterising the psycho, or giving the plot any complexity. Doe is punishing people for their sins rather than the simple desire to kill them. Such notions give the murders dramatic weight and makes each turn of the plot compelling. Doe, like Hannibal Lecter, is deeply intelligent, cunning and ahead of the police at every turn. Doe provides a motive, however. His disdain for modern society is sincere and, in a completely perverse way, almost understandable. Everyone laughs when he casually discusses killing a lawyer, concluding that we must secretly be thanking him for that one. He is at once certifiable and level-headed. They say a film is only as good as its villain, and Seven has one of the most indelible in screen history.

Yet, the film is really about Mills and Somerset, not Doe. The “chalk and cheese” nature of the relationship between them has a logical progression, culminating in a mutual respect that allows you to overlook the staleness of the archetype. Mills is headstrong and naïve to city life, whereas Somerset has a world-weariness that comes with age. As with the original Lethal Weapon, it takes a while for them to really work as partners, although the transition doesn’t pan out in the way you’d expect. It takes the intervention of a third-party for the characters to overcome their differences; Mills’ wife, Tracey (Gwyneth Paltrow). It’s rather interesting that their first serious discussion about the case is over a glass of wine in Mills’ apartment, rather than the formality of the police station, as we’ve seen in so many other films. The casting of Paltrow is also intriguing since she was dating Pitt at the time, perhaps a conscious decision on the part of the producers to give the film some media exposure. Such knowledge also makes you re-evaluate certain aspects of the plot.

The actors do fantastic work. While Pitt isn’t at the peak of his talents here, he imbues Mills with a nervous energy and youthful bravado that makes the character’s eventual downfall all the more tragic. This is a guy who wants to be the best cop he can be and thinks of himself as smart, yet he gets his research from Cliff Notes and serves wine in a tumbler. After viewing the film again, it’s surprising how nuanced his work is. Which isn’t to say he outshines Freeman, who could be the screen’s definitive father figure. Somerset is a well-trodden character; the old-timer who has seen it all, attempting to teach his successor how to survive in the big bad world. Freeman never feels any less than genuine and gives the picture its poetic core.

While the police procedural aspect of the picture is very prominent, the director never sags the pace. Fincher was reluctant to provide standard set-pieces, only allowing short bursts of adrenaline throughout. He also had the common sense to tie the action sequences into the overriding plot. An example comes early on, in which a lead involving fingerprints gives them the address of a potential suspect. A SWAT team is dispatched, but they don’t find Doe when they arrive at the location… they find another victim. Fincher toys with our expectations so often that you’re never sure where it’s going, a rarity.

The highlight of these sequences is undoubtedly the extended foot chase between Doe and Mills. It’s thrilling because it rings true; Pitt isn’t some action movie stereotype charging toward his foe with certainty. He’s careful, by the book, and above all else, scared shitless. It also reveals that the real star of the movie is Fincher, who gives the sequence a kinetic charge that bristles with verisimilitude. The way it ends, with our hero staring death in the face, isn’t just a cap to yet another movie chase – it sets events in motion that lead to a nihilistic punchline of an ending.

The final act furthers the genre subversion, denying our protagonists the satisfaction of catching Doe. Giving himself up, the loon appears at the police station covered in someone else’s blood; his induction into the Horror Movie Hall of Fame complete. But it’s not over. Somerset reasons that he wouldn’t quit before completing his “masterpiece,” and Seven‘s real terror is left for the third act. It would be wrong to ruin the ending for the blissfully ignorant, but it has become infamous and rightfully so. The pay-off is brutal, and it hasn’t lost any impact in the intervening years. It set a new standard for the Final Twist and Downer Ending, respectively. It is the logical exclamation point on a movie that never played it safe or by the rules.

Naturally, the studio was reluctant to go forward with such a grim coda, and it was only through the insistence of Pitt, using his star power, that the conclusion remained intact. We’re pre-programmed to expect happy endings from Hollywood, with the killer brought to justice and the detectives satisfied. Yet, to have ended the picture on such a chord would have detracted from the sense of despair that Fincher had tightly constructed since the opening shot. From beginning to end, Seven is a perfectly-formed piece of pulp entertainment… that hasn’t aged a day.

Best Scene

John Doe is a truly sick mofo.

Useless Trivia

  • On a $30 million budget, the film went on to make $327,311,859 internationally.
  • The first corpse you see is the screenwriter, Andrew Kevin Walker.
  • Pitt injured his arm during the chase sequence, requiring surgery. The filmmakers wrote it into the script, and his attempts to hide it in some scenes are highly noticeable on the Blu-Ray.
  • The opening title sequence includes a remix of “Closer” by Nine Inch Nails.
  • All of Doe’s books were real books, written for the film. They took two months to complete and cost $15,000.
  • Walker’s original script is said to have had a strange, dwarf-like woman as part of the forensics team, who did the “clean-ups” after each murder. Perhaps he envisioned David Lynch making it instead.
  • Morgan Freeman’s son, Alfonso, has a cameo as a fingerprint technician.
  • Pitt played a serial killer two years before, in Kalifornia (1993).
  • A lot of references are made to the number 7: the film plays out over seven days, has seven deaths, and so on. Also, exactly seven minutes into the film, Mills receives his call about the “Gluttony” murder. It doesn’t stop there: Pitt earned $7 million for the role.
  • Dr. Cox himself, John C. McGinley, plays the leader of the SWAT team.
  • R.E.M’s Michael Stipe was considered for Doe.

Dave James

Editor-in-Chief at Film freak, music minion, professional procrastinator, podcaster, video-maker, all around talented git.

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