A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

 
 

 

 

SE7EN jjj
½

10th Anniversary Retrospective Review  

1995, R, 127 mins.

Mills: Brad Pitt / Somerset: Morgan Freeman / Tracy: Gwyneth Paltrow / Talbot: Richard Roundtree

Directed By David Fincher /  Written By Andrew Kevin Walker

"Seven" Poster

When SEVEN was released in the fall of 1995 it was like a violent and chaotic needle to the heart of the thriller genre as a whole.  Yes, there have been films about serial killers and successful ones at that (1991’s THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS swept the Oscars and HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER remains one of the cinema’s least appreciated films about a madman). 

Yet, David Fincher's stark, glooming, moody, and emotionally involving SEVEN sort of took the notable characteristics of the genre (old beat cop/detective taking on a new protégée on his last case to solve the mystery of a series of killings) and gave them new vitality and life.  The film has an inventive, original, and sometimes ingeniously crafted script, well-realized characters,  fine and astute performances, and, most importantly, a dark, sinister, and innovative visual style.  If you consider the landscape of the thriller genre over the last ten years, many films have tried to duplicate SEVEN’s look and feel.  Few have succeeded as it did. 

SEVEN may have been a larger surprise if one considers the talent involved.  The audacious and smart screenplay was written by Andrew Kevin Walker (who apparently wrote the script over a two year period while working for Tower Records; he would later go on to scribe 8mm and SLEEPY HOLLOW, two intrinsically morbid films in their own right).  Directorial duties feel to the then novice  Fincher.  He started his career as a cameraman on such populist entertainments like RETURN OF THE JEDI and then later graduated up to directing his own music videos in the late 80’s and early 90’s (he most notably directed Madonna’s VOGUE and EXPRESS YOURSELF).  His crafty and edgy visual style obviously lent itself well to his first theatrical feature -  ALIEN 3.  Although that film was arguably one of the least successful entries in the popular sci-fi series, it nevertheless confirmed a new talent with a keen and observant eye for intriguing and innovative visuals.  Yes, ALIEN 3 was a not an altogether great film, but it most certainly was a great looking film. 

Fincher has gone on to make great films well into the late 90’s and beyond, following up SEVEN with his crafty and absorbing THE GAME with Michael Douglas in 1997, FIGHT CLUB which re-teamed him with SEVEN star Brad Pitt (a film that I thought was one of the best films of its decade), and most recently he did PANIC ROOM with Jodie Foster, an engrossing film in its own right.  Yet, it is SEVEN that remains Fincher’s most memorable and gritty work and for good reason.  It provided some critical vindication from the backlash he received at the hands of critics and fans of the ALIEN films, notwithstanding the fact that it showed what a director with a great eye for visual flourishes could do with seasoned and disciplined actors (Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt) and a screenplay that was not afraid of being ominous, depraved, pungent, and unapologetically in-your-face with its subject matter.  For those that saw Fincher as a director of limited range after ALIEN 3, SEVEN served as a dramatic wake-up call.  It remains, even today, to be one of his most assured, atmospheric, thrilling, and unsettling of films.  Few thrillers of the latter part of the 90’s (if not today) have the same sort of visceral staying power after you have watch them that SEVEN had.  After viewing SEVEN you feel the need to go outside, get some sunlight, and just breath a sigh of relief.  A film that has this sort of eerie and pungent effect on one is indicative of just how well crafted and powerful it is. 

SEVEN is not a completely original work in terms of its setup.  What sets itself widely and divergently apart from the other lesser thrillers is in its execution and payoff.  Most thrillers, the contemporary ones, are put together with the same overall ingredients.  You usually have a series of characters that are used to investigate a killer or madman that has left a deadly wake of bodies in his/her path and then the film follows along a more-or-less straight narrative line to reveal who is guilty and who is not, often with a surprising twist at its conclusion.  SEVEN does appropriate some of these basic elements, but it elevates its own material above the rest with its own unique sense of intelligence and wit that is often lacking in conventional thrillers.  It also does an exemplary job by actually slowing itself down by taking the necessary time to develop its characters and infusing a decent amount of humanity in them, which subsequently allows our buy-in and sympathy for their plight.  Most modern thrillers, with their insistence on MTV paced and styled editing editing and camera work, feel that the viewers suffer from some sort of perverse attention-deficit disorder that can’t focus on images for more than three seconds at a time.  SEVEN remains refreshing because, amidst all of the turmoil, dread, and grisly imagery, it still manages to have the perseverance and time to inject some humility into its characters and story. 

SEVEN also separates itself from other thrillers in its handling of its main protagonist.  Standard films in this genre essentially try to show who the killer is.  In SEVEN, the main pleasure in watching the film is not so much to find out who the killer is but rather how he will outsmart the police next.  Most thrillers seem fixated on the killer, but SEVEN takes more stock in focusing on the psychology and exploration of the killer’s motives.  The film is a completely absorbing police procedural in the sense that it details the journey behind how the police try to discover the motives of the killer and use that, in turn, to plot their next move.  More significantly, the killer in the film is not some drugged up nut job who kills because he is fantastically nuts.  Yes, the killer in SEVEN is crazy, but there is an intelligence, patience, and logic to his plans for mayhem.  This is not a killer that kills spontaneously for the sake of being heard.  This villain gives the terms “methodical” and “meticulous” new twisted meaning to the point where he always has the upper hand, even when the police think they do.  Like Hannibal Lector in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, the killer of SEVEN has control of all of the chess pieces and is poised to win the game at every narrative turn.   

This is why SEVEN is so tense and taut: we don’t thrill over how the police will catch the killer but rather if they will.  The killer himself only occupies a few minutes of screen time and, in an ingenious plot development later on, he simultaneously allows himself to be caught by the authorities and, in one memorable moment, secures his eternal freedom, although not in the literal sense.  SEVEN is not a thriller where the good guys come out on top.  The bad guy, in true film noir style, actually beats the heroes, albeit in less than conventional ways. That is another one of the film’s strengths: it does not feel slavish to conclude on the upbeat and pleasing ending that some audiences members may desire.  Just when you think that the film is close to being over with the police emerging victorious, the screenplay continues to add on the tension until its too much for one of the heroes to bare.  The final minutes of SEVEN remain as unnerving and uncompromised as ever because it does not rely on the standard, stereotypical shoot-out and chase between the cops and killer.  The summation of the film is all about mood, tension, and the interchanges between the characters that builds to a convincing level of horror and personal intrigue.

SEVEN, despite its emotional and atmospheric density, tells a fairly simple story and does so well.  The plot concerns two diametrically opposed detectives.  One of them is a more-than-ready to retire cop and the other is a wet-behind-the-ears rookie beginning with his career in front of him.  We meet the retiring cop at the beginning of the film.  He is Somerset, played in one of those awesome performances of resiliency and inner calm and conviction by the great Morgan Freeman.  Nothing could please him more than leaving the force and the dreadful details of his life as a detective forever (you can really sense his own melancholy with his job as he visits a murder scene at the beginning of the film; as one cop describes the act as one of passion, Somerset dryly deadpans back, “Yeah, just look at all of that passion the killer left on the wall.”).   

The other cop is Mills, played with equal conviction by Brad Pitt.  Whereas Somerset is the embodiment of level-headedness and steadfast logic and patience, Mills is the young hotshot and arrogant figure who could not sense his own impulsiveness if it came up and bit him.  Needless to say, the two start off as partners that don’t particularly gel well.  Somerset is one of those dreary-eyed and lonely veterans who’s own preoccupation with staring at murder victims and scenes for decades has left him depressed and jaded.  Mills, on the other hand, can’t wait for the next victim, as it cathartically feeds into his subconscious desires to be a hero.  Mills is the intrepid and ambitious cowboy that wants to get on his horse to ride off fast to save the day.  Nothing would please Somerset more than to get off the horse and stop riding for good. 

Nevertheless, Somerset begrudgingly accepts to help the young rookie, maybe because of the basic interest he sees in a new case they are working on.  After the film’s opening, the two go to a murder scene of particular noteworthiness, not to mention gruesomeness – they come across an enormously obese man who is dead at the kitchen table with his face in a bowl of food.  Things get stickier when they discover that his hands and feet were bound, that he clearly had a gun pointed to his head, and that he apparently ate himself to death.  An autopsy later confirms this, which makes this case not your average homicide.  It would have been much more pedestrian for the killer to just simply kill the man, but to make him eat himself at gunpoint?  That alone has a level of exactness and cunning that revels in unpleasantness. 

Mills, the impulsive young cop, seems to think that its just another case of a lunatic killing a fat man for kicks.  Somerset knows better, and tries to instill in his protégée the importance of looking for and cataloguing evidence so that patterns emerge and overall pictures of intent can generate.  Through a series of subsequent murder scenes, and through a hunch of Somerset’s based on the available evidence, it becomes clear that a serial killer is picking off people based on the seven deadly sins (those being gluttony, greed, sloth, lust, pride, envy, wrath).  The first victim – the fat man – his sin was “gluttony”.  The other murders that the duo investigates are equally inventive, if not disgusting and perverted, that involve the other sins.  One involves a man having to cut off a pound of his own flesh, the other has a poor, hapless man being chained to a bed for over a year, and yet another victim is disfigured.  Somerset wisely and correctly concludes that their killer, “John Doe”, is using the seven deadly sins as a springboard towards an overall mad scheme. 

SEVEN does not simply revel in the graphic details of the murders, but it also focuses on the way its heroes deal with the murders and investigate them to avoid future ones.  This is not one of those police/detective yarns where the characters get by on hunches or good luck.  Somerset does his homework and actually goes to library to learn more about the killer’s motives.  Feeling that the killer is using great literary work for his inspiration, Summerset studies the work of Chaucer and Dante (in one humorous moment, Mills studies the Cliff Notes version of them).  Despite their differences, Mills and Summerset kind of become a singular force.  Mills has the brawn and Summerset has the brains.  Among all of the violence and fevered bloodshed, the film still has the patience to provide for some quiet and introspective moments between the two, especially in one truly great scene at a bar.   While having a drink together, Somerset further revels hidden and harsh truths about his outlook on the world, especially in one impassioned speech (“Apathy is the solution. I mean, it's easier to lose yourself in drugs than it is to cope with life. It's easier to steal what you want than it is to earn it. It's easier to beat a child than it is to raise it. Hell, love costs: it takes effort and work.”).  

The strongest and most pervasive aspect of SEVEN is definitely its visual eye, and in the capable hands of Fincher the film drips with atmosphere that makes these type of noirs breathe with life.  The film is about as black and white as a color film can get, and Fincher feels more comfortable filming its scenes in dark silhouette and shadows than in any real natural light.  This look is crucial to the overall sense of the film’s inherent dread and depravity.  The film is more of less set in the present, but much like Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER, SEVEN is distinctive in how it’s a hybrid universe that feels both otherworldly and familiar at the same time.  Technology is modern, but the sets, costumes, and other details suggest a 40’s or 50’s sensibility.  And, like all great film noirs, Fincher bathes the many scenes in rain.  Any light or brightness in the film’s individual moments would be counterproductive.  This is a film about sinister psychology, and the “look” is everything.  Fincher paints his canvas like a season pro. 

One of the finer aspects of SEVEN that still holds up are the uniformly good performances.  Brad Pitt makes a compelling and hot-tempered hero that always acts as an effective foil to the cool restraint of Somerset.  Freeman, as much as he ever has been, reveals  Somerset as a model of calm authority.  Freeman stands alone as an actor who commands so much presence by doing so little, both verbally and physically.  He never has to yell or scream to get attention directed his way.  He plays Somerset to subdued and serene perfection, which further manages him to come across as an informed, wise, and graceful figure.  It’s edifying to see how much poise and grace Walker gives Freeman in his dialogue (“I just don't think I can continue to live in a place that embraces and nurtures apathy as if it was virtue.).  Few heroes of the thriller genre are as insightful and thoughtful as Somerset.  Even the performance by the killer himself (who is revealed in a surprise cameo that will not be revealed to the those who have not seen the film) has a level of bitter, detached and melancholy soft-spokenness that works ever so effectively in his key moments with the quick-to-infuriate Mills. 

The only real failing in SEVEN is in one widely underdeveloped subplot involving a character that proves to be instrumental to the film's unfolding events, especially in the final showdown with the cops and the killer.  It’s somewhat difficult to reveal who she is without spoiling much, but let’s just say that her presence and ultimate demise leads to the tension of the final moments.  Clearly, this character’s presence in the film facilitates the need for a crucial turning point for one of the characters and his actions that will change his life forever.  Yes, it provided the jolt and twist necessary to create the morbid sense of ambivalence and pathos that the film’s ending needed, but this character alone felt more like a plot contrivance than a fully developed persona. 

However, SEVEN remains, ten years after its release, as oppressive, brooding, and grim of an experience as ever.  It’s a film that is punctuated by great performances, ingenious visual details, and a plot that is essentially a dark social allegory that has its foundations laid in dread, despair, and immorality.  SEVEN is not just a stylish exercise in the thriller genre, but an meticulously crafted and intelligent psychological horror film that creates an genuine, unsettling feeling in its audience while maintaining a level of humanity with its characters.  SEVEN is more horrifying and unsettling than the average thriller and this is a compliment.  Far too many thrillers today get by on style over substance.  SEVEN gets by on both of those entities, and it still holds up as one of the best serial killer films ever made.  There is no denying its twisted and unsavory power and even if it does make us lean in and stare into darkness for two hours, at least it does so with unforgettable results.  The bright end of SEVEN’s tunnel is that, when all is said and done, it’s a superior example of an often overstuffed and manufactured genre. 

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