Back in my favorite year in film, 1995, David Fincher brought us a terribly disturbing and gripping crime film in Seven that changed the genre dramatically, and set Fincher forth on a very successful, high profile directorial career. His previous film was Alien 3, and that was plagued with production difficulties and creative clashes. It was not a success, but Seven showed what an unencumbered David Fincher was capable of. Supported by a powerful cast and a brilliant screenplay, this didn’t just spark his career, it ignited it.
Lieutenant Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is a seasoned investigator who is on his final days before retirement. Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) is a young, impulsive cop looking to make a difference, and maybe even a name for himself, here on the grimy, ugly side of this nameless city. They are put together on a series of murders that Somerset soon determines is the work of a serial killer who justifies his crimes as absolution for the world’s ignorance of the Seven Deadly Sins. Each crime is more ghastly than the last as this sociopath “John Doe” uses them as a garish method of preaching. While Mills is quickly convinced that this killer is a certified whack job, Somerset sees the calculating, educated rationale behind these crimes. Both men slowly descend into this frightening and disturbing world that culminates in an unforgettable climax that tests the resolve of both men.
While there had been serial killer films before this, Seven really applied an original concept and environment to the subgenre. Having the killer, John Doe, be motivated by the seven deadly sins opened up the film to social commentary, and that is handled exceptionally well. Somerset is someone who you would like to know what kind of person he was before he was damaged by the apathy and amorality of the world. He’s someone that appears to have once strongly believed in certain admirable principals, but has since lost his zeal for them. He’s perhaps looked far too deep for too long into the grimy darkness of humanity, and Mills is someone who, likely, hasn’t looked deep enough. He judges everything on surface appearances, and doesn’t entertain the possibilities of a deeper psychological analysis of their adversary. Somerset slowly tries to educate Mills to be a more insightful and knowledgeable investigator, and while it brings them more into alignment with one another, it can’t wholly change who Mills is at his core. The scenes of both Detectives discussing philosophies on Doe’s motives and how they reflect upon society are amazingly well written and perfectly acted by Freeman and Pitt.
With the film never stating what city this takes place in, it creates an enveloping environment in which one can never get quite comfortable, and you’re not supposed to. The world of Seven is dangerous, seedy, disturbing, and filthy. This feels like a city where decency of any kind is in the extreme minority. The production design creates a world that is probably even more weathered than Somerset is. There is deep texture put into every aspect of every setting to give it a worn down history. There’s nothing new and shiny here. It’s all old and deteriorated by time. The grime seeps through in every frame of film, and the color timing adds to that further with a slightly de-saturated quality. The near constant rain just adds to the miserable conditions that these characters have trudge through every day. It was an excellent choice to have the entire climax take place outside of the bleak urban environment and put it into a sun-baked desolate open field. The visuals in that sequence depict a dead landscape.
The cinematography of Darius Khondji enhances the production design further with a modern noir quality to it. This is much different than a Michael Mann type of neo noir where things are glossy and colorful, but still offering a depth of darkness. This is a style of noir that emphasizes the dreadful and macabre aspects of this world. It’s meant to show off a gritty, unsettling realism that will horrify. Khondji composes shots with a lot of dramatic weight, and makes use of dolly tracks very well in specific moments. I love the tracking shot after the duel interrogation scene after the “lust” killing. It’s just Somerset and Mills sitting in separate interrogation rooms quiet and still. They are taking a long moment to recover from everything they’ve just witnessed and experienced. The shot smoothly tracks from the one-way window of Somerset’s room to Mills’ room. It’s a quiet downbeat moment for both the characters and the audience to soak it all in. The main action sequence of the Detectives chasing after John Doe is exceptionally well shot maintaining a solid sense of geography with each character, and letting each shot count as the sequence moves from one location to another. The scene constantly evolves adding in new obstacles and dangers along the way. Every aspect of its execution is excellent. Overall, the cinematography of Seven is superb and masterful. It is definitely a result of a cohesive artistic vision.
Rob Bottin was a special make-up effects master starting with his amazing achievements in John Carpenter’s The Thing in 1982. In Seven, his signature grotesque and stunningly detailed work is highly evident. He knows how to bring out the garish realistic horror in his creations. It fits Fincher’s visual style dead-on presenting the smallest details with great clarity to make you believe that everything your seeing is frighteningly real. Bottin worked with great filmmakers like Joe Danté and Paul Verhoeven before joining with Fincher, and I could praise Bottin’s body of work to endless extent. It has always had a particularly off-beat and strange approach which reflects Bottin’s personality very well. While Seven went grossly under-appreciated at the Academy Awards with only a well deserved nomination for Best Editing, Rob Bottin won a Saturn Award for his work here, and it was also very well deserved.
It is a very taut and suspenseful story that Andrew Kevin Walker wrote and Fincher executed. No time is really wasted getting our characters into the plot. We learn about them along the way through the investigation instead of introducing them in a standard first act structure of seeing them go through their daily lives before something adverse occurs. How they each approach the case tells us all we need to know about Mills and Somerset, as I stated earlier. The case and plot unfold with a strong sense of mystery and intrigue as both Detectives uncover the chilling theme behind these murders. Each homicide becomes increasingly more graphic and horrific, thus, heightening the twisted psychological state of the killer. Meanwhile, there is Somerset getting to know David and his wife Tracy, portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow, who tries to adjust to their new home, which she is not very fond of. She confides in her husband’s new partner after getting to know his sensible and compassionate manner. These scenes and character beats are nicely interwoven to continue developing these characters and their relationships. This maintains an audience’s invested interest in how they deal with everything that’s going on, and the repercussions of what they encounter.
The film presents a definitely interesting psychological state of its killer. How he gets into police custody is quite unexpected, and sets up a very compelling final act where John Doe is in control. He might be in handcuffs, but he’s the one leading the Detectives towards a chilling conclusion. A friend of mine believes that Brad Pitt over acts drastically in this climax. I’ve never had a problem with it. In that moment, David Mills is severely torn in an agonizing emotional state where he wants to lash out, but repeatedly tries to restrain the urge. He’s already established as an impulsive and brash person, and attempting to not lash out in anger would be extremely difficult for a man like David Mills to do. He’s fighting raw, instinctual emotion, and that would likely result in the reaction Pitt presents here.
Brad Pitt’s performance all around is rich with depth and emotion. Mills is a guy who cares about what he does, and wants to make a difference. He could easily become an ignorant jerk of a character with his brash attitude and closed mindedness, but Pitt gives him enough heart and humanity to make him likeable. He takes the hard headedness, the intensity, the loving husband, the optimistic outlook on humanity, and the naivety and mixes them into a cohesive whole. As do all the characters in this film, David Mills has his complexities, and Pitt makes it all work and make sense. Pitt also visually inhabits the role well giving Mills a dirtier, more gritty look than Pitt had ever adopted before, and truly makes the character seamless with the world he inhabits.
The synergy between Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman is solid. They counterbalance one another beautifully with their characters existing with polar opposite mentalities. They hardly ever agree on anything, but are both motivated to see this investigation through to the end. When they occasionally do get on the same page, it’s a great spark that quickly motivates the story forward.
Freeman, as always, is exceptional. He embodies the dour philosophical mindset of William Somerset wholly. Again, he’s a man worn out from the moral decay of society, and only reluctantly gets pulled towards this case. At first, he wants to avoid it, but Somerset’s intuitive and educated mind drives him towards it. Freeman greatly captures that reluctant attraction, and conveys the character’s psychological investigative approach with a great deal of skill and weight. Somerset is very meticulous, never jumping to conclusions, and Freeman has the right seasoned quality and grasp on tone to sell those qualities well. So much of the film’s tone is sold through him. Prior to the appearance of John Doe, all of the religious ideology and deconstruction of motive is carried by Morgan Freeman, and I don’t think anyone else could’ve done it as well as he did. While the screenplay explains it all very well, if handed over to the wrong actor, it might not sell remotely as well or as coherently. Again, it’s all in the tone, which is pitch perfect through Morgan Freeman’s deeply talented abilities.
In the same year that Kevin Spacey gave us his exceptional performance in The Usual Suspects, he also gave us this fascinating surprise performance as John Doe. It’s a greatly subdued and conservative piece of work that makes Doe so much more unsettling. Throughout his screentime, there’s that knowledge that Doe is not done, yet. There is something more chilling and frightening still to come, and Spacey’s performance is very foreboding in the most subtle way possible. He’s in control, and he is reveling in the impending completion of his masterpiece. It’s all amazingly compelling. Spacey won an Academy Award for his turn as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, and this role is equally deserving of that accolade.
The supporting cast is very solid. R. Lee Ermy is the tough Police Captain, but never falls into that Full Metal Jacket stereotype people like to shoehorn him into. While he doesn’t have a great amount of screentime, his character is given enough character beats to make him feel fleshed out and genuine. Gwyneth Paltrow is perfectly cast as Mills’ wife Tracy. She’s a very compassionate and loving woman who is not pleased with their current situation moving into the city, but has no desire to cause David any stress or turbulence by voicing her worries. She is an exceptionally decent young woman that definitely is out of place in this decaying urban setting, and Paltrow plays these emotional beats with depth and heart. Everyone else filling out the cast holds their own strongly, and help to create a very full and dimensional world for this film.
Lastly, Howard Shore composed a strong score by bringing weight to the grim, horrifying atmosphere. It truly emphasizes the drama, urgency, and intensity of the film. It’s not a score that jumps out at you, and nor should it be. It maintains and enhances dramatic tone throughout. Shore has proven to be a widely diverse film composer, and he is able to complement David Fincher’s darker cinematic style so very well here.
Andrew Kevin Walker put together a deeply impressive and stunning screenplay here, and Fincher was the absolute perfect choice to realize it. Much of what I write in these reviews is more than just saying if the film is good or bad. In a case such as this, it’s about spotlighting the brilliant achievements in filmmaking, and analyzing what made it such an instant, powerful classic. Seven is a landmark film for the genre, and especially for New Line Cinema. It was really their first A-list type of film attracting high profile movie stars like Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Spacey, and securing an amazing director with incredible vision in David Fincher. It’s entirely shot as a major studio film, and strongly moved New Line Cinema into contention as a serious, big budget studio. Only six years later would they release The Lord of the Rings trilogy to massive commercial and critical success. This was a pivotal film for both the studio and David Fincher. It is an all around shocking and amazing piece of work that delivers an intelligent story with thematic and dimensional elements along with startling images of graphic horror.