“In any major city, minding your own business is a science. The first thing they teach women in rape prevention is never cry for help. Always yell ‘fire.’ Nobody answers to ‘help,’ but you holler ‘fire,’ they come running.”
“That’s fucked up.”
Seven is one of those movies that feels like someone should have stopped it from ever being made. This is, I hasten to add, a good thing. The film is a mix of taut thriller, engaging mystery, and gruesome horror show, and it’s so howlingly bleak that the evil deviance at the center never gets any easier to stomach. At its blackened heart, it’s a cop drama, a thriller about a pair of mismatched detectives developing a mutual respect as they pursue a ruthless serial killer, but it’s so far beyond the boilerplate dramas you expect from the genre that it ceases to be just another cat-and-mouse game and becomes instead a haunting walk through a cruel world feeding on its on waste. This, I again hasted to add, is still a good thing. Seven is many things — tightly written, skillfully directed and wonderfully acted — but what most sets it apart from its peers and makes it a modern classic is its bravery, its complete lack of pretense when it comes to digging through the trenches of the human soul. Basically, Seven is a meditation on what it means for evil to win (it sucks), and why anyone would fight it in the first place (what else is there to do?). Released in 1995, the film was renowned then and remembered now for its brutal violence, but that’s just the trees; the forest is a masterful suspense film that turns on pure character.
(For the purposes of this piece, I’ll be referring to the film as Seven, despite the fact that it’s sometimes marketed as Se7en, which, though admittedly a cute play on the title, isn’t a word.)
The film’s opening scenes perfectly establish everything that director David Fincher and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker will try to accomplish with the story, setting up the pair of cops at the center of the film and also quietly starting the ticking clock leading toward an inevitably grim conclusion. Det. William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is a classic murder police, strolling silently through a violent crime scene, pausing to ask a few questions that do nothing but annoy his juniors. As he’s inspecting the scene around a corpse, up the stairs bounds Det. David Mills (Brad Pitt), chewing gum and barely restraining the kinetic energy that’s constantly threatening to spill out. He’s wearing a leather jacket in contrast with Somerset’s worn tweed, and if the visual clash isn’t clear enough, they get into a little pissing match when Somerset wants to know why Mills insisted on being transferred to the awful center of a nameless, rotten city. Somerset’s retiring in seven days, and he’ll be transferring his caseload to Mills. The weeklong timetable Walker sets up isn’t (just) a handy parallel with the murders that will show up later, but a structurally genuine way to set up the kind of deadline needed in movies like this one. So right away, before any of the real blood starts to flow, there’s a sense of urgency and loss as Somerset and Mills try to navigate each other and the passing of the baton, but Fincher isn’t about to coast on melodrama. Things are about to get bad. Quick.
After an opening title sequence set to a remix of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” and featuring jumpy B-roll of, among other things, a man using a razor to shave off his fingerprints, Seven begins its own descent into the Inferno that will come to dominate its tone. Mills wakes up on Monday morning, kisses his wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), goodbye for the day, and meets Somerset for a trip to another murder. The deceased is a hugely obese man, bound and sitting at his kitchen table with his face planted in a plate of spaghetti; autopsy findings show that he was fed until his stomach burst open. The exacting nature of the death is enough to convince Somerset some deeply worrisome things are afoot, but his captain (R. Lee Ermey) says, “Don’t even start that big brain of yours cooking.” But Somerset knows that whatever’s going down is just beginning, and he pleads to be reassigned. “This can’t be my last duty,” he says. “It’s just gonna go on and on and on.” He’s right, too. Mills’ next homicide is a local defense attorney found dead in his office with the word “GREED” written in blood on the carpet, and Somerset returns to the obese man’s rancid house to find “GLUTTONY” carved in the grease on the wall behind the refrigerator.
It’s the revelation of the quasi-spiritual overtones and the sense of an epic battle about to ensue that kick the film up a notch from engaging cop thriller to riveting psychological drama. Somerset maintains that the killer is “preaching,” and that he won’t be done until he’s somehow acted out his own version of the seven deadly sins on the inhabitants of the grim, dystopian hellhole — with greed and gluttony gone, that just leaves sloth, lust, pride, envy, and wrath. Watching Somerset and Mills slowly assemble clues from crime scene photos, interviews, and a mixture of speculation and instinct is more involving than any gunfight. When Mills complains that he’s bored waiting around on the killer, Somerset tersely replies, “This is the job,” and Freeman gives the reading a mixture of stone certainty and unshakable fatigue, as if Somerset knows what the job requires but doesn’t even know why any more.
As the bodies pile up over the course of the week, the detectives move steadily closer to the killer, and Fincher and production designer Arthur Max bring an almost nauseated sense of unease to the city: It rains almost constantly, there are bars on every window, and not a speck of it looks remotely amenable to human inhabitants. Fincher came up shooting music videos, and though his name was on the troubled Alien3, it was Seven that first established him as a storyteller with a keen eye and firm sense of just what kind of specific mood he wants to convey on film. All of his films have a certain darkness to them, but it’s never the same kind, whether we’re talking about the moody mindfuck of The Game, the pulpy trip of Fight Club, or the brooding reflexiveness of Zodiac. But Seven is the darkest film he’s yet made, both tonally and graphically. Fincher’s also aided by the superb camera work of cinematographer Darius Khondji (Delicatessen), who captures a gutted look and feel for the city that’s somehow beautiful. The man is responsible for one of my favorite minor moments in modern film, a shot of Tracy asleep after Mills has left on assignment one night:
She’s gorgeously framed, almost cradled by the edges of the picture, but there’s an undercurrent of something like menace or worry to the shot, as if she’s actually boxed in or imprisoned. It’s a quick moment, and one that doesn’t necessarily have to be done as well as it is to move the story forward, but it’s a perfect little emotional roadmap of where the film has been and where it will go.
The detectives come to know their serial killer by the horrifying ways he inflicts his righteous anger on his victims, and Fincher walks a shaky line between going further than you’d expect and letting the viewer’s mind do all the work. For instance, when Somerset and Mills examine the obese man in the coroner’s office, Fincher never shows what are said to be distensions and wounds and all manner of likely disturbing things. But later on, dealing with the killer’s lust-themed victim, Fincher shows a glimpse of a Polaroid of the murder weapon: a blade-tipped dildo. Just typing it is enough to make me squirm in discomfort and reel from the evil of the idea, but Fincher has to refuse to pull that punch because he has to make sure that the killer’s irredeemability is assured.
Fincher does that because the world of the film is an uncertain one that baffles its protagonists for its apparent lack of moral code, and he has to make sure that though the film is dark, it’s still possible for someone like Somerset or Mills to find his way through it. The killer is completely hopeless because the detectives need to know they can still themselves be saved. The same goes for Tracy, who provides some heartbreaking dimension to Mills’ home life and the toll the city is taking on it. Mills and Tracy are new to town, and Tracy has a tougher time adjusting to the sense of infestation than he does. Paltrow’s fragility is often gut-wrenching in a scene where she turns in confidence to Somerset to get advice about life. When Seven came out, Paltrow was still establishing herself as an actress, and though her more iconic appearances in films like Shakespeare in Love were still years away, she does a lot with her limited screen time to make Tracy, if not exactly dazzlingly complex, then at least an empathetic and relatable woman.
The same goes for Freeman and Pitt, who work well together and whose mutual chemistry drives the increasingly gruesome investigation. Freeman has long been reduced to playing roles that fall loosely within the same basic parameters of a kindly old mentor with something to teach the young ‘uns, but what’s remarkable about his work as Somerset is that he’s not actually a kind or even nice guy. He’s smart and talented, sure, but Fincher isn’t about to make him some happy old cop out to give the new kid one last wacky lesson in police work. No, Somerset is a soldier, a detective who grinds out cases because that’s all he knows to do. At the same time, Pitt, as always, is almost deceptively entertaining as Mills, a smartass who nevertheless knows deep down how to be good at what he does. Even 13 years ago, Pitt was a definite screen presence, and he brings the casual swagger to Mills that he brings to almost every role. He’s also one of those actors who seems unafraid to interact with the film world around him, and who also seems like he might break something if he drops it: He shambles through his apartment, he slumps in chairs, and he talks with his hands more than any other male actor of his generation, always casting them forward in a gesture like he’s tossing out a fishing reel. He’s just Brad Pitt, you know? He’s funny and eager and likable, and makes Mills the perfect counterpart for Somerset.
However, it’s Somerset who remains the audience’s anchor, a kind of proxy that carries us through the film’s path into the darkness and, just maybe, back out again. Fincher isn’t naïve enough to have Somerset preach about fighting the good fight, but neither is he apathetic enough to make the character detached from those around him. If the purpose of the film’s killer is to force the audience to exist in a world where the bad guy often slips free, then Somerset exists as a final punch thrown while falling onto the mat. Somerset isn’t a deep man, and Fincher never spends too much time examining why he continues to chase killers like this one. He just does it. Yeah, a lot of the time evil winds up winning, and even if it doesn’t, it’ll be back again tomorrow. But not fighting is worse than merely losing. For Fincher’s cops, the opposite of faith isn’t doubt, it’s indifference, and that’s unforgivable.