From the DVD Shelf: Se7en (1995)
I saw Se7en on the big screen back in 1995, and it freaked the hell out of me. I’m not sure what prompted me to go see it in the first place, but I know that I was entirely unprepared for the brutal film that unfolded before my eyes. It was tough, shocking stuff, and while I really respected the film I never felt any desire to go back and watch it again.
Almost a decade and a half later, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and The Social Network have cemented my opinion of David Fincher as one of the finest American directors working today. With the release of Se7en on blu-ray, I thought it would be interesting to give the film another look.
Even so many years later, Se7en remains as punishing a movie-watching experience as it was back in 1995. There is some truly vile, stomach-turning stuff on display in the film. Some of which we see on-screen (I remember my first glimpse of that horribly obsese corpse — the first murder victim discovered at the start of the movie — from 1995, and I found it just as unsettling the second time around), and some of which is just discussed (such as the terrible fate of the prostitute). But the two blend together into an almost unrelenting parade of horrors, from the first frame to the very last.
All of which, of course, was certainly the intention of David Fincher and his collaborators. Watching the film, today, I can step back a bit from what I’m watching on-screen to recognize the extraordinary skill on display by the filmmakers. On crisp blu-ray, Se7en is absolutely beautiful in its unremitting ugliness. The filmmakers have created a word of unending gloom, from the seemingly never-ending rain in the unnamed city in which the action takes place to the sickly yellow light of Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman)’s refrigerator. The oppressive urban decay and the constant rain remind me distinctly of Blade Runner, and there’s even a great shot of Brad Pitt running across a street and jumping over cars, his weapon drawn, while the rain continues to pour down, that is a direct quotation of an iconic shot of Harrison Ford from that film. But Mr. Fincher and his team have gone beyond homage to create a distinctly real, potent environment that is unique to this film. This city breathes and sweats, and we (and the film’s characters) feel it as an oppressive force. In Se7en, the city is as much the enemy as the serial-murdering John Doe.
Mr. Fincher has come to be well-known for his meticulous attention to detail, and that is on fine display throughout this film. The sets are incredible. Each new location we journey to with Detective Mills and Somerset, as each new murder is uncovered, is absolutely perfect. Each new space is distinct and fully realized, telling us everything we need to know about what terrible events have gone on within those walls. Needless to say, each new location is more hideous, and more hopeless, than the next. It’s powerful work.
There are some fine actors anchoring this film. Morgan Freeman plays the weary Detective Somerset. Following this movie, Mr. Freeman was often cast in similar roles (as the brilliant police detective) but those films lack the humanity that Detective Somerset has in Se7en. It’s easy to forget, but Somerset is a far cry from the usual idealized, heroic characters Mr. Freeman is called on to play these days. Yes, Somerset is brilliant, and in his dedication to fighting against the darkness of the terrible city in which he lives and works, there is heroism. But Somerset is a wonderful character because of how deeply flawed he is, despite those noble aspects of his personality. He’s a total, unapologetic jerk to his new partner, Detective Mills, throughout much of the film, and the revelation of how and why his relationship ended with the woman with whom he might have shared his life is appallingly tragic.
Brad Pitt is electric as the similarly flawed Detective Mills. There is idealism in Mills — he asked to be transferred to this terrible place, thinking that he could make a difference — but he is also blind to the ways he is destroying his relationship with his wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), and he is cocky and overconfident about his abilities as a detective.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s role is small, but she brings a lot of life and sweetness to Tracy, in just a few scenes. It’s a critical role, because we have to connect with her in order for the film’s ending to work. Then there is Kevin Spacey as the murderer John Doe. Mr. Spacey doesn’t enter the film until the very end, but in just a few minutes he creates an extraordinarily iconic, frightening villain. It is masterful, often-imitated but rarely duplicated work. I had forgotten just how incredibly good Mr. Spacey is in this film.
But in the end, the reason Se7en was made, and the reason why it is still such a potent piece of work today, is that ending. I suppose some of you reading this might somehow be unaware of the film’s ending, so I will avoid spoiling it here. But it blew my mind when I first saw Se7en back in 1995, and now, even knowing what’s coming, I found it to be a jaw-dropper. Andrew Kevin Walker has written a lot of tough, gritty scripts, and his work in this film is fantastic. But the cold-blooded ending that he devised is extraordinary, and I can only applaud Mr. Fincher and the filmmakers for sticking with the decidedly un-Hollywood ending. It’s marvelous. (The special features reveal that the filmmakers did discuss some alternate versions of the ending, and I can only thank the movie-gods that they stuck to their guns and went with the original version.)
Se7en is not a fun movie to watch. It pushes, to my very limits, just how much gore and violence (implied or otherwise) I can tolerate watching. But it remains a masterfully crafted, haunting and nightmarish piece of work. After the debacle of Alien 3, it’s pretty amazing that David Fincher was able to find his way to make this extraordinary film, and in Se7en one can clearly see a man in total control of his gifts, and at the start of an incredible career. I’m glad to have been able to revisit this film!