MODERN MASTERPIECE / SE7EN

WRITTEN BY JACK O'KENNEDY

In one of Se7en’s first scenes, veteran homicide detective William Somerset finds himself at the scene of a murder in a dank apartment. The cop filling him in on what’s happened describes the incident as a “crime of passion” to which Somerset, whilst taking in his blood and brain stained surroundings ,dryly quips “Yeah just look at all the passion on that wall”.

In hindsight, this opening exchange sets us up very neatly for what Se7en’s all about. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker (who was a Tower Records employee at the time) and directed by David Fincher the world of Se7en is a cold, filthy and nihilistically bleak one, where people’s vices are exposed and magnified before being turned against them in the most horrifyingly literal way. The film’s suspense lies in the simplicity of its structure. Following the discovery of an obese man who has been fed til he burst and a hugely influential lawyer bled to death with the word “Greed” written in blood at his feet, the scenario becomes clear. Seven sins. Seven days. Seven bodies.  Newly partnered homicide detectives  David Mills (Brad Pitt) and the aforementioned Somerset (Morgan Freeman) find themselves up against a depraved serial killer with a brutally elaborate plan and a penchant for classic literature (don’t they all). What follows is deeply disturbing but always gripping detective thriller of the darkest hue imaginable.

Freeman’s Somerset is that classic archetype of the soon to be retired detective whose on his last week of the job, the kind of guy who has seen too much. Naturally he’s partnered up with the new kid on the block, Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) who has a chip on his shoulder and is eager to a fault. This newbie and lifer pairing up sounds old hat, but Se7en succeeds where other detective dramas fail by delivering us characters who feel authentic and lived in. Freeman has that perfect mixture of gravitas and weariness that conveys a man who is very good at his job but feels like he’s fighting a losing battle with the horrors of the world.  With his blunt approach and impatient nature Pitt has never been better as the cocky upstart who relishes the chance to take down a “psycho” in his first official case. Their different styles set up a wonderful push and pull at the films centre but the characters surprise us as often as they conform to type.

Whilst Se7en is undoubtedly bleak, it is not unremittingly so, boasting a streak of humour that welcomingly breaks through the dreariness from time to time. Take Mill’s continued frustration with the  impenetrable language of Chaucer and Milton that sees him clandestinely purchasing the Cliffs Notes version of The Canterbury Tale and Paradise Lost or Somerset’s comndemnation of the library security who are surrounded by “all these books, a world of knwoledge at your fingertips, and what do you do, play poker all night?  Somerset and Mill’s antagonistic relationship gives way to moments of respite at times also, like their discussion about whether shaving off a nipple whilst prepping their chests for microphones would be covered by workmans comp or the gales of laughter the two partners and Mill’s wife (Gwenyth Paltrow) break down into when the proximity of their apartment to the deafening roar of the subway is revealed.

Darkness however is the order of the day here and David Fincher delivers it in spades. Before making Se7en he was known primarily for his music videos, having directed for performers as diverse as Madonna and Nine Inch Nails. His filmmaking debut was the infamous Alien3 which he’s since described as “the worst thing that ever happened to me”.  With his sophomore feature however he showed off the skills that would lead him to becoming one of the most consistently compelling American filmmakers of the last two decades.  The film boasts several truly memorable set pieces the most celebrated of which is the discovery of the third victim. When fingerprints are uncovered at the second crime scene and lead to a match we know they won’t send us to the killer. That would be too easy. What they do discover is something far more horrifying.  The S.W.A.T. teams descent upon the house, their breaking down of the door and they way the light from their torches penetrates the dimly lit bedroom of their suspect is a masterful exercise in the art of building tension. In this instance we have a switching off genres within the one scene, the tone shifting from thriller to full blown horror when the sheets are pulled back and the emaciated body of John Doe’s third victim is revealed. For a man who wasted the gift of life by dealing drugs and molesting children, Doe has decreed he be tied to a bed and kept barely alive whilst he literally wastes away.  Fincher even throws in a jump scare for good measure, the victim springing to whatever version of life he has left as his sunken face is closely examined by a disgusted cop.

As compelling as the hunt for the killer in Se7en is, the film’s most intense battle is an ideological one. John Doe cuts the game short. Rather than allowing Mills and Somerset to put the pieces together and bring him in themselves, he reveals himself to them with one of the most striking introductions to a character in recent memory. Shot from behind at a low angle as he walks into the police station, his increasingly loud and deranged roars of “DETECTIVE” see Mills and Somerset turn on the stairs to take in the form of Kevin Spacey whose cut and bandaged fingertips are dripping blood across the station floor. What follows is an agreement that will see Spacey’s Doe reveal the location of the final two bodies, so long as only Mills and Somerset accompany him. Throughout the film we see the two detectives clash over the nature of their killer. Mills is dismissive, reducing their target to a jumped up mad man, one who will inevitably spout cliches like “the voices made me do it, the dog made me do it, Jodie Foster made me do it”. He lacks the experience of Somerset who puts together the methods, the victims and the high literary references  to reveal a master planner who has a mission. These aren’t murders, they’re sermons. These different takes on the nature of the appropriately named mystery man that is John Doe are brought to a head in the car journey the three share in the films final movements. Doe shrugs off Mill’s assertions that he’s a lunatic, saying “it’s more comfortable for you to make me insane”. Spacey delivers fully as the film’s depraved villain, emitting a disquieting calm that harbours a deeply twisted centre and when he finally gets to the reasoning behind his grand scheme he becomes disturbingly compelling.  

“A woman... so ugly on the inside she couldn't bear to go on living if she couldn't be beautiful on the outside. A drug dealer, a drug dealing pederast, actually! And let's not forget the disease-spreading whore! Only in a world this shitty could you even try to say these were innocent people and keep a straight face. But that's the point. We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it's common, it's trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon, and night. Well, not anymore. I'm setting the example..

What follows, as the trio’s car comes to a stop in the cities outskirts, out of range of the police radios, the pylons keeping the helicopters at bay, is an absolute powerhouse of an ending. Too often are we subjected to weak conclusions in this genre, with the detectives and killer engaging in one final,  perfunctory race to save the last would be victim. Walkers script turns the genre on its head entirely. The crime has already been committed. Doe is unarmed and at the mercy of Mills, but the power is in the killer’s hands. Mills’s cries of “whats in the box?” have since been endlessly parodied but on first viewing the tension that builds following Somerset’s grim discovery as we wait to see how Mills will react is nerve shredding. Pitt does some fantastic work here, utterly stripped of his swagger, the emotions that play out on his face and through his voice never give away what direction he’ll go in, before the flash of a figure delivers an ending both inevitable and completely subversive.

There have been many pretenders to Se7en’s throne in the years since its release but none have matched its twisted worldview and thrilling story. It’s virtues are many but it does have one glaring sin of its own and that was reigniting the infuriating trend of films with numbers in their titles. Fincher’s film may be a triumph on every level, but its also to blame for mind numbingly stupid titles like The NIN9’S, Cradle 2 the grave and Tak3N. Have Doe round up and dispatch of all the writers and executives that come up with these moronic ideas and all will be forgiven.