[9 September 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s been so glamorized and creatively undermined in the years since first striking cinematic gold that it’s almost impossible to remember a time when the serial killer was actually considered a viable heavy. Not just some smooth talking terror with a tendency toward the classics and fine cannibal cuisine, but a true blue horror movie menace that inspires fear, not a fanbase. All throughout the ‘90s, the FBI profiling potential of such a psycho was exploited and overexposed, creating a vacuum where something vile and reprehensible should be. Few filmmakers understood the underlying power of such a human social disease and even fewer wanted to journey down the dark and disturbed road toward unveiling such a sicko.
That’s why, some 15 years after its initial release, David Fincher’s extraordinary Se7en (now on Blu-ray) remains a grim gloomy masterpiece. It’s a work of remarkable vision played out in a classic cat and mouse with far too few heroes and way too many villains. As envisioned by screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, it’s a bleak world where good is trampled on, evil endures, and the inescapable stench of death is everywhere. Balanced between the gratuitous and the always open Gates of Hell are two dichotomous policeman - the bitter and soon to be retired William Somerset and the emotional and eager to advance David Mills. As they roam the nameless urban decay which passes for a city, they act like two sides of the same coin—resignation mixed with rage, the need to escape vs. the urge to run headstrong into the fray.
It all begins to fall apart when an obese man is discovered dead. He is soon followed by the mutilated corpse of a ‘greedy’ high profile lawyer. When the words “Gluttony” are discovered at the first crime scene, Somerset is convinced: there is a serial killer on the loose and he is using the Seven Deadly Sins from scripture as a means of making his apocalyptic point. While his chief and Mills are skeptical, he continues to research the religious underpinnings.
A clue leads them to another victim (‘Sloth’) and, eventually, to the hide out of one “John Doe”. A baroque apartment filled with the musings of a madman, it offers rare insight into the demented mind they are dealing with. Eventually, after two more killings, Doe turns himself in, offering to provide the final piece of his prophetic puzzle. For Somerset and Mills, however, the solution may be too startling—both personally and professionally—to endure.
It’s safe to say that Se7en is a modern classic, the prototypical thriller from whence an entire category of protean police procedural was born. Simmering slowly and provocatively, giving up its ominous secrets in small snippets of despair, it remains a defining moment in the careers of all involved. For director David Fincher, it was a rebound after the disastrous Alien3 and a calling card for his future as one of the world’s best filmmakers. For Morgan Freeman, it was the second stellar performance in as many years (The Shawshank Redemption of ‘94 securing his continued big screen renaissance). Though Brad Pitt already had some fascinating work under his pretty boy belt, 1995 would be his creative coming out, both as Mills and with an Oscar nominated turn in Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. Even the minor role work of Gwenyth Paltrow prepared us for her eventual Academy accreditation with Shakespeare in Love.
For many, however, Se7en stands as the moment when Kevin Spacey came into his own as a major movie force. Like Pitt, 1995 would be his year, taking home accolades for his mysterious maniac here and for his equally impressive work as Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint in The Usual Suspects. Though he had previously made a massive impression as the office manager in the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross, Doe would turn the solid stage actor into that most rarified of cinematic icons - the true movie monster. Thanks in part to Fincher’s fierce artistic approach and ability to make clear character associations, we fear this man even before ever laying eyes on him. Once Doe arrives, fingers shredded and clothes covered in blood, the last act conversation and confrontation confirms our worst fears.
Indeed, Doe is a dilemma for Somerset and Mills. Each see him differently in the grand scheme of their career. The older man sees him as an albatross, a continuous killing force and a constant reminder of the rotten world he wants to leave. For the younger, the meaning is all together different. Mills wants the ‘Sins’ case as a calling card, as a way of making his years in the service of a suburban Podunk homicide department finally pay off. Both intentions are as selfish as those of the self-proclaimed message of God they are chasing. In fact, Se7en could be described as three men coming face to face with their individual destinies—and each one failing miserably at such a chance realization.
Fincher follows this by setting the film in its own inexact universe, a place with murder and misery around every corner, where the rain never stops and the surrounding desert houses an oasis of industrial blight. There are no high tech specialties here, no cellphone checks or in-car computers. Though clearly of its era, Fincher also forces an unique dystopian noir on the narrative, giving it the crackle of old school suspense without resorting to many of the mannered, cliches tricks inherent. By getting us involved in the story right up front, by letting us in on the horrific details of these cruel crimes (visualized with award winning skill by make-up master Rob Bottin), we become invested in the outcome, and as such, as shocked and undone by what happens next.
It’s interesting to hear Fincher discuss his work on the film, lamenting lost sequences and struggling to find a rhyme or a reason behind New Line’s “wait and see” production approach. Indeed, one of the more intriguing elements of this film (which make up a majority of the added content on the new release of the title) is the fact that few saw it as a commercially feasible property. Rewrites were asked for and reluctantly given. Much of the more gruesome ideas were excised in favor of suggestion and off screen reactions. Even with Silence of the Lambs critical accomplishments, the studio was convinced Se7en would stumble. Oddly enough, a few successful test screenings secured the monies necessary to complete Fincher’s vision—and what a hard, hideous series of ideas it is.
Even 15 years later, it’s impossible to forget the force intrinsic to Se7en. It stands as a singular moment in a moviemaking realm which regularly tries to stand-out (or more accurately, sell out). Audience still find it sad and unsatisfying, especially given the way the characters’ lives end up. We don’t like to see a triumph of the wicked over the worthy, but then again, few in this film seem deserving of much more. Ineffectual or overwrought, calculating or just plain crazy, the situation in Se7en suggests we are all doomed. Such a sentiment might not make for an upbeat crowd-pleaser, but it does deliver a pure post modern masterwork.