Se7en Launched Careers and Countless Imitations
I’m going to assume that the majority of readers have seen this film already. There will be spoilers in the paragraphs ahead, so you have been warned.
Over three years would pass (Which is fairly common with Fincher’s movies, until recently) between the debacle known as Alien 3 and Fincher’s 2nd feature film, Se7en. Se7en would open in the fall of 1995 rather quietly, especially since its opening weekend competition was the much hyped Showgirls. I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone that Se7en won that battle rather quickly.
While many dark and disturbing thrillers had tried their hand at box office glory after the unimaginable success of 1991’s Best Picture Winner, Silence of the Lambs, Se7en was the first to succeed in a big way. In fact while Lambs might have been a major reason that Se7en was ever made, the latter was really something else entirely. Fincher’s modern noir eventually became the template that a lot of small budgeted (and mostly direct to video or cable) thrillers use even today. Go through your movie channel listings late at night and you are bound to find some thrillers with the term “In the tradition of Se7en” hidden away in the film’s description.
Se7en opens up in an unidentified city where it rains all the time and is as morally corrupt a place as they come; I’ve always assumed this was supposed to be New York City, but the film never tells you either way. This is one of the many interesting and small attributes the film possesses that few people talk about. The film follows two detectives as they try to solve a series of murders based around the seven deadly sins (Gluttony, Envy, Lust, Pride, Sloth, Greed, and Wrath).
The film’s two main characters are on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of careers and life. Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) has been on the force for many years and is set to retire in seven days from the film’s opening. Somerset is a modern day Sherlock Holmes, but what is so great about the character (and likewise Freeman’s performance) is the extra depth given to Somerset’s plight. In most mystery thrillers where you have the Sherlock Holmes type character, they are so witty and pompous, but Somerset is the exact opposite. I think he actually regrets the fact that he is smart and is really good at what he does. He would be much happier and settled if his life calling were that of a teacher or even a janitor; something where he would be less likely to have to see the darker side of life. The Police Captain played by R. Lee Ermey has a few scenes where he’s telling Somerset how he doesn’t think he will retire; that this is what he is supposed to be doing with his life. And Freeman will always give a shrug or a small chuckle to imply that he’s starting to realize that fact more and more each day.
In contrast, he is partnered at the beginning of the film with up and coming hotshot Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt). Mills is the Ying to Somerset’s Yang. Where Somerset is calm, precise, and patient, Mills is on edge, unorthodox in his actions, and easily agitated. It had been awhile since I had seen the film, and Freeman just has always resonated with me more whenever I’ve thought of the movie in the past. It’s easy to overlook or forget how good Pitt really is in this. Part of that also has to do with the larger than life persona that Pitt prominently displays today, but the man can act and Se7en might be his tour de force.
The film is interesting in that it’s so simple in its set-up. Fincher has said that what attracted him to the script was that it was a “connect-the-dots thriller.” He also called it a “tiny genre movie” and has compared it to the works of William Friedkin (The Exorcist) which as a comparison to another filmmaker is pretty dead on.
The movie is fairly basic and pretty generic in its genre trappings but at the same time it works like gang busters. The seven deadly sins motif would seem to imply some sort of religious upheaval and would paint in your mind possibly much broader ideas, but the film never skims much beyond the surface as far as motive goes in the main case. What it does give us that so few thrillers have in the fifteen years since its release are some great characters that we would watch paint a building if that were their function in the story; they just happen to be cops and so solving a crime is what we are watching them do.
And I don’t mean to take away from the thriller aspects of the film. Because one of the main reasons that about 90% of David Fincher’s output has been in this genre is because he’s so damn good at it. Much like Friedkin, Fincher knows exactly how to pace this type of film. The film is extremely eerie and very disturbing and it has very little to do with the graphic output on screen. There are some gory sequences which are mostly situated in dark corners of rooms and cut away from fairly quickly. I thought I remembered being more repulsed at the crime scenes representing gluttony and sloth, and they are not tame by any definition, but nowhere near as disturbing as I remembered and probably no more grotesque than something you would see on an episode of C.S.I.
So while the gory sequences might be more often remembered, Se7en is actually more frightening as the detectives are investigating and slowly going down paths that could possibly lead to more harm than good once they figure out exactly what is going on.
The film is filled with so much ominous foreshadowing it should be more annoying than it actually is. I don’t know how many times Freeman has to say something along the lines of “This can’t be my last case” before we must catch on and realize this will probably prove more true than not. There is also the strangest sequence in the film where Mills’ wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), secretly meets up with Somerset to discuss how horrible the move has been and a possible abortion. When you flash forward to the film’s conclusion you can finally see the relevance on display. And I guess for that fact alone one can give the scene a pass, but upon first viewing it is such an oddly placed and paced sequence that it’s easy to be a little turned off by the film right before it hits the home stretch.
The one aspect that I will always find interesting about Se7en (and you can use your own judgment as to how much merit this should or shouldn’t give the film itself) is its killer’s true identity. A month before the film was released a smaller film from 1995 had started catching on called The Usual Suspects. Before Suspects unless you were just a die hard fan of Glengarry Glen Ross or The Ref you probably didn’t really know who Kevin Spacey was, but holy shit did The Usual Suspects ever change that.
So when you’re sitting in the theater a month later and you see Kevin Spacey walking in the precinct as John Doe (the killer) yelling “DETECTIVES!!!” you are thinking: Fuck Me! That’s Keyser Sose! The fact is (and this can also be looked at as a small fault) is that Se7en is not so much a whodunit but more of a “Why Did They Do It?” Where the problem lies is that for three-fourths of the film it is set up as a pretty traditional mystery, but then when you learn the identity of Doe (which is in an earlier sequence before the final act begins) you realize it’s not someone you could have possibly guessed was the main culprit. Now from a rational stand point it’s pretty easy to figure out early on that this will not be that type of mystery. There are only a few people given enough screentime to make them possible suspects and it would be pretty stupid if it was Paltrow or Ermey. There is also no possible way for it to be Somerset or Mills. So who are you left with? Could it be one of the security guards at the library or maybe the S.W.A.T. team leader played by John C. McGinley (Funny thing is I guessed it was going to be him when I saw it back in 1995.)?
So the fact that it ends up being Kevin Spacey made it interesting but not in a way that Fincher and company could have ever envisioned. When they made Se7en they had no way of knowing The Usual Suspects would come out a month before and Kevin Spacey mania would begin. It was just one of those happenstances that make life so much grander. I think it’s safe to say that the film would have worked just fine and maybe this would have been Spacey’s first moment to really shine, but it’s an interesting avenue to explore nonetheless. But this is one of the first and only times I can recall where people would refuse to give away the actor playing the killer before people saw the movie even though you would learn who the character was at the same time.
And Spacey is so good. His performance hits all of the right subtle and creepy notes that you want your big screen psychopath to hit. One of my favorite moments is when they are on their way to where Spacey says he has hidden the last two bodies he starts shaking his head back and forth a bit and develops a sly grin. When Freeman asks him what he’s so happy about; Spacey reverts back to a straight face and says nonchalantly “We’re almost there;” it’s just brilliant.
Of course there is one huge twist at the end of the film and its execution is really what makes a good film a great one. Considering how many different scenarios they went through in production it’s amazing how they ended the film on just the right note. As you will be able to see on the DVD there were many different endings that they had to choose from. They all took place in basically the same situation but the characters’ actions would change slightly from scenario to scenario. I’m sure you remember or know that it involves a deserted area amongst telephone poles, a package being delivered, and Brad Pitt screaming “What’s in the box?” As much as the ending has been discussed and dissected, it’s a pretty simple set-up and outcome. And considering that the film itself is so simple in its execution the ending is as pitch perfect as you could have gotten.
In the end, Se7en gave Fincher a surprise hit at the box office (over $370 million worldwide) and elevated him to the elite director status that I’m not even sure he wanted after his disastrous outing with the Alien franchise. But like it or not a lot of us were believers in Fincher and couldn’t wait to see what he had up his sleeve for us in the near future.
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