Se7en (1995, David Fincher)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

Se7en is a deeply disturbing film not only because of the hellish metropolis it depicts so passionately, but due also to the questions it raises about filmmaking and, by extension, human nature. David Fincher has created an entire world for a movie, and it isn’t pretty. Everywhere you look, there’s human misery, and even an innocent married life is mired in secrets, regrets, and darkness. Everyone lives on dread, and everyone dies in the last painful moments of horror, confusion, and decadence. The story is not particularly original; a religious vigilante takes salvation into his own hands by offing those guilty of indulging in the seven deadly sins. Morgan Freeman is the wise, cynical detective on the case, Brad Pitt his eager, career-minded parter. It sounds like a hundred million other cop movies, but as I’m sure you know, it’s not.

Andrew Kevin Walker began writing this perverse valentine to New York City (the location is never named in the film) — the polar opposite of Woody Allen’s Manhattan? — while working as a clerk at Tower Records and witnessing brutal angst, the sickest of hedonism, the lonely terrors of life. (Imagine how much more terrifying Se7en may have been if he’d been working at a restaurant.)

His killer is not seen until the final act of the movie, but he’s a living, breathing, grinning presence from start to finish. Kevin Spacey offers a John Doe lifted quietly from one of film’s all-time greatest villains: Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt, his railing against indulgence, his isolationist self-regard and final attempt at sexual sacrifice. David Fincher is an obvious disciple of Alfred Hitchcock; Se7en must join the league of Dressed to Kill, The Manchurian Candidate, Double Indemnity, and precious few others in the category of suspense films that are worthy of the Master.

The crime scenes are graphically portrayed, with numbing realism, each one more horrifying than the last. John Doe is the sort of killer who wants to make a point, and he turns his murders into painterly masterpieces. His fingers are cut and charred to prevent the police from discovering prints, his apartments filled with notebooks full of intellectual, insane manifestos. He is smarter than the police and he knows it. Just before he completes his last mammoth feat — and evil does prevail in this movie, by the way — Freeman’s Detective Somerset begins to comprehend the scope of his brutality (which is born not of madness but unfeeling calculation), but it’s not enough.

Many have tagged the jarring, inescapably distressing feel of the film as a result of its magnificently grotesque, nightmarish subject matter. I disagree. Plenty of movies are more violent than this and are not effective at all, much less as absorbing as this one. I also don’t think it’s realism, false currency in this context; verité realism is not a part of Se7en because it would fool no one. What bothers people about Se7en is that it’s beautiful. Fincher found his cinematographer, Darius Khondji, in Paris working on perfume ads. The blood, the bodies, the city, the world — every last shot in Se7en is like a painting, if an excruciating one. The ugliest scenes are those that capture Gwyneth Paltrow in the role of Tracy, wife of Pitt’s Detective Mills and a woman on her last legs of quiet frustration who threatens to unravel until her terrible final moments.

Se7en leaves plenty to the viewer, and in the end that makes it more disturbing. Tracy’s death is a good deal more devastating if the final curtain is only imagined. Of course, this is as much a feature of the performances as it is of Walker’s outstanding script. Pitt, Freeman, Paltrow, and Spacey are all brilliant and leave enough of a mark that they continue to exist for us after the credits roll, which is rare and impressive in a crime drama.

What Fincher and Walker have done is made the most insightful of all serial killer movies, which in the wake of The Silence of the Lambs arguably became their own genre. It’s all here — the dank apartment, the polite insanity, the rational observations, the social comment by way of killing. They have not merely skimmed the surface of their subject matter. They have crawled into the depths of it. They have reveled in it, and they have dared not to make a movie that rejects its antagonist as a quack. In his book The Gift of Fear, Gavin De Becker argues that in order to understand a killer we must be aware of how much we have in common with him, of the fact that he is as human as we are and that there is something in him we relate to, which is why we love to read and learn about their crimes, about acts we would probably never think of committing.

Even the most strong-stomached among us can scarcely imagine the burden and responsibility of diving as head-first into the mire as everyone involved in this production did. Judging from the astounding cinematography and editing, they did what filmmakers are supposed to do: they gave it their all and made it look phenomenally fun even if it wasn’t. No other movie of this stripe made in the ’90s can claim to look so great and work so well; even the obligatory chase sequence is impressive and may indeed be one of Fincher’s finest moments, bringing a gritty comic-book gangster shadow to painfully real life.

Is it truly a good idea to swim so unapologetically in these nightmares? Leonard Maltin wrote that Se7en “seems to wallow in the depths of human depravity it so passionately decries.” Isn’t that the point? To beg the question of whether we are fascinated with violence as a fact of our humanity and a natural occurence, or as a perversion? Can a filmmaker cross a line of taste in trying to tell a story? A story that says so much about people, about modern life (especially eighteen years later), about privacy and perversion? I’m reminded of A Clockwork Orange and Fincher’s own Fight Club and their controversial points about free will and responsibility, and I’m reminded of the fact that in essence, both films were on the side of those who protested them. It sounds coy but is in fact important that Somerset, where he a real person, would probably balk at the idea of seeing a movie like Se7en — and if he did, he’d find it unpleasant. Still, Fincher quickly earns considerable trust from us and as much as he may challenge, he doesn’t cross a line of taste. (Though tell that to my mom or ex-girlfriend, skeeved out beyond forgiveness by the Sloth and Lust killings respectively. Their reactions are understandable, but Fincher’s scarring is not malicious, it’s collateral damage of his dedication to craft.)

But beyond the ideas of stretching boundaries and influencing an art form, what’s important in Se7en is storytelling. In every sense, it favors long-term effects — the sudden chilling moment in the middle of the night when you remember it — over shocks and scares. It defies the logic that a movie can’t be fun if its subject isn’t. That’s not to say it’s Bambi, but it does look terror in the eye and creates something chilling and exuberant from it. Ultimately, even if it ends on a low-note, perhaps the existence of the film itself in all its intelligence and lamentation of a cartoonishly cold modern world is the key to its life-affirming nature. As in Fight Club, apathy and violence are equally rebuked; a police officer’s tired lament has common ground with the weird spouted philosophies of one of those walking nightmares affecting him. What is there not to love about that?

[This is approximately the third full-length movie review I ever wrote, way back in 2003. Made a few minor updates.]

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