In honor of the upcoming Gone Girl, I’m reviewing each film in David Fincher’s staggering career.
What it must have been like to see Se7en in 1995. After the diatribe that was Alien 3, David Fincher’s serial killer followup must have struck as a revelation. Certainly, that would have been my reaction; Se7en is one of the finest films of the 1990s. Hell, it’s it’s one of the finest films ever made, period, mastering genre tropes and knowing which to tweak and which to keep. Without necessarily knowing the disastrous production troubles that had befallen the second Alien sequel, audiences and critics might have expected another insipid offering pulp thrills and little else. It’s true Se7en’s first goal is to entertain—however twisted that may seem given the film’s constant urge to disturb—but it’s also a vital cultural artifact, using the serial killer genre to unshackle the deep moral problems of today. But hindsight is 20/20, and alas, the critics of 1995, some of whom are still the critics of 2014, embraced the film as entertainment but dismissed it as art.
For those that don’t know, Se7en is a 1995 crime film about two detectives (Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman) chasing a mysterious serial killer who designs his kills to “turn each sin against the sinner.” These sins, the older and more thoughtful of the detectives explains, are the Christian seven deadly sins: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. We are later told by the serial killer himself that he’s doing god’s good work, and that he’s exacting vengeance on a city in a state of moral decay. Though it was shot on location in and around downtown L.A, the setting of Se7en famously goes unmentioned. Instead of hearing Chicago, Manhattan, or L.A., we hear the ominous “city”, which is constantly barraged by a moody deluge of heavy rainfall, referred to as “This place.” The refined but apathetic Detective William Somerset (played with wisdom and grace by a rarely better Morgan Freeman) is sick of his unpleasant existence living in a wicked city, and is set to retire. His replacement is the total opposite: Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), a tousled, crude (a neck tie adorned with basketballs does not go unnoticed), and of considerable annoyance to Sumerset, idealistic up and commer.
The killings are creatively perverse and perversely creative, and are capable of significant shock value. One of them, which I won’t specify here, features one of the best jump scares I have ever seen. Over the years I’ve seen Se7en with many groups of people in many different settings, and each time people’s bodies shiver with nausea. The viewer’s orientation to the seven deadly sins need not delay, since it isn’t long before the detectives are called to investigate a private residence, in the center of which is a 400 pound fat man. He’s seated, face down, with his head implanted in gigantic bowl of spaghetti sauce. Gluttony. Almost as though he’s warning unwitting audiences to leave, Fincher does us a friendly courtesy in Se7en’s opening minutes. Unlike the disgustingly elaborate sadism shown in the rest of the film, the first crime scene (which isn’t tied to the seven deadly sins) is merely of a marriage dispute that ended with a husband’s brains and blood on the wall. Cue offended moms leaving with their disgruntled teenagers.
The irony, of course, is that Fincher refuses to show the killings; he tells, or at most, suggests. We see the disturbing aftermath, sometimes in photographs and sometimes directly, but we almost never see violence. In the same way the serial killer turns each sin against the sinner, the filmmakers turn the imagination of the viewer against him or herself. The mind’s eye is the most punishing weapon of all, one that Fincher pulls the trigger on persistently. He finds provocative ways to arouse a powerful somatic response, forcing us to imagine what a bucket of blood and vomit must smell like as Brad Pitt gags at the pungent aroma. Only, we didn’t see the bucket. We only see Pitt’s gag reflex. This is the tamest example, but the best are spoilers. Everything in the film, from the elaborate mise en scene to the delicately constructed cinematography, work to produce a swarm of sensory detail that clogs and repels our eyes, ears, nose, and mouth.
There is one remarkable exception to Se7en’s ironic policy of no violence: a sprawling chase sequence that’s the most intense of David Fincher’s amazing career. It’s messy, harsh, and chaotic, and flings Brad Pitt, along with the viewer, from hallways to stairwells, from stairwells to apartment units, from apartment units to roofs, from roofs to ladders, from ladders to running across cars, and so it goes. We move through completely varying locations at breakneck speed, and the velocity of the action is heart pounding. The sense of physical danger and threat is unparalleled in most action cinema, and makes you wonder why Fincher doesn’t shoot action scenes more often. He’s also not scared to mess up Brad Pitt’s beautiful chiseled face, who at the time had a career of heart throbbing romance roles. Pitt’s Hollywood image certainly played into his casting, making a statement like “if this could happen to Brad Pitt, it could happen to you.”
Se7en continues a tradition some say began with Akira Kurosawa’s minor but excellent Stray Dog, pairing a seasoned and cynical but intellectual detective (Morgan Freeman) with a hot headed and idealistic rookie (Brad Pitt). These men are Detective Summerset and Detective Mills, respectively. Mills’ wife, played like a portrait of loveliness by Gwenyth Paltrow, actually facilities the two detectives bonding. The Odd Couple formula has always worked; it works here; it will continue to work for years to come. The contrast promotes natural friction and drama, and when the chemistry’s there, simple dialogue scenes of banter become as special as chases and gun fights. Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt bring their simple characters to life with naturalism and depth, and the pair make for a massively entertaining team. Everyone will undoubtedly identify with one more than the other, but there’s a lot of Mills and Summerset in all of us. Se7en’s script is sturdy.
We know now–although critics didn’t then—that Fincher is an MVP of knowing what he wants and the motivations for why he wants it, and in lesser hands we might question the filmmaker’s control of cinematic language. But here, we can see purpose. The purpose of the establishing shot, a wide shot of a scene’s overall setting, is to spatially orientate the viewer. In one of Se7en’s most overlooked stylistic flourishes, it uses almost no establishing shots, and when it does, their purpose is distorted. The first establishing shot is of the film’s setting—the unnamed city. Contradictory to the purposes of an establishing shot, the camera is close, too close, to really give the viewer a sense of space. The top of the shot seems cropped: we can’t really see the tops of half the buildings and, unnervingly, neither can we see the edges of them in the sides of the frame. It’s as though we’re bottled into a maze of glass, steel and stone, and we see no route of escape. Fincher collapses depth, which, as it’s used here, forces the buildings to resemble a sort of modern art abstraction, rejecting the use of space as a realistic representation of a major city. This can be seen as comment that the contemporary American metropolis is, itself, an abstraction of reality. This is thematically synchronous with the rest of the film, which bastardizes city life as a bastion of moral, emotional, and psychological degradation.
People who have met David Fincher have oft described him as so hyper intelligent it can be intimidating. That he can pack so much into so little—a two second shot in a two hour movie–is a startling testament to that description.
He commands a visual literacy above and beyond anyone else in the industry today. Every shot is astoundingly precise and beautiful, whether it’s a trivial shot of Morgan Freeman’s head peering into a refrigerator or a powerful dramatic moment like a gun being pointed at Brad Pitt’s face. Cinematographer Darius Khonji embossed Se7en with eloquent, deliberately under-lit imagery many early critics complained about. It has blacks so black it was only possible by a process called bleach bypass, where the silver in the film stock wasn’t removed so less light is caught on when filming. The effect is an image of engulfing darkness, but Khonji uses light to paint the tips of people’s faces and silhouette. The relentless atmosphere of dread, death, and decay is owed to the the meticulous construction of the image. The cinematography is seeped in a dirty pungent yellow; often ascribed as the color of decay. The set design is so believable one has the impression they would need to wash their hands after touching any surface, and even the walls of Mills’ apartment are rife with old water stains.
Even with a collection of films as dark and twisted as Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, none are as bleakly nihilistic as Se7en. In the film’s unnamed city, eyes are stabbed out during muggings and and one of the seven deadly sins happens in every house and on every street corner. The serial killer, played to bone-chilling perfection by an actor who won’t be named here, preaches his disgust with our complacency with terrible human beings. Not rapists or murderers, but everyday people who, by most moral standards proposed by the great moral philosophers Kant or Jeremy Bentham, are morally bankrupt. It’s hard to imagine that level of religious zealotry being politically correct in a 2014 release, but there’s a sick but valid logic to the serial killer’s observations that is hard to deny. In an existence of absolute moral abandon and treachery, we witness the ultimate neo-noir. And in the film’s devastating conclusion, it’s as though we’re reaching through the dark to find the safe way out. In Se7en, there is no exit. There is no redemption. In Se7en, David Fincher paints his own fall of man.
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