Essentials #14: SE7EN (1995)

“What’s in the box? What’s in the fucking box?!?”

Yeah…that movie. David Fincher and Andrew Walker shattered the psychological thriller/horror genre and influenced an era of copycats. It’s also one of the most visually striking movies I’ve ever seen.

That’s how’d describe this movie. It’s a sledgehammer. It’s one of those movies where you actually gasp, “Oh shit,” because the material is so brutal and terrifying, but you continue to watch because the storytelling is captivating.

Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman star as homicide detectives on the hunt for a serial killer whose murders correspond to the seven deadly sins (gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, pride, lust, and envy). This description is bad because it paints the movie like something we’ve all seen before:

:TrailerVoice: A young, hot-shot detective pairs with the one-last-job retiree…in a deadly cat-and-mouse chase in the city…all in hopes to catch a killer on the loose.

No, quite the opposite. It’s actually fresh, intelligent, and original. Andrew Kevin Walker’s script is the obvious key, because on one level, it succeeds within the unspoken rules of the thriller/horror genre, but the characters have interesting moral compasses and the murder case is intriguing.

On another level, it turns the genre on its head by playing with the audiences’ expectations. We were set up to think the film was going to end in a shootout with the killer, like it normally should in your average cop thriller. But it doesn’t. The last 30 minutes of the film actually become a character study and focuses on the philosophical implications of a psychopath and his moral views on humanity.

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Notice the noir aspects of the film. The lighting and costume are pitch-perfect. Image: https://laceysfilms.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/se7en.jpg

Another major key are the performances. Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, as well as the killer (I won’t spoil who plays him) take characters that are typically 2-dimensional and bring a humanity [or lack thereof] to them. There’s a great scene halfway in the film when the two detectives take a break from the case and have a conversation about their motivations. Pitt really comes to life and brings depth to an otherwise standard, hotshot rookie detective role.

There’s a blunt idealism and truthfulness to Pitt’s delivery that I love because for the first time, I actually agree with the motivations of the rookie detective. Mills challenges Somerset to reevaluate his morals and it’s an excellent example of how this film subverts the cop genre. It is very well-written and most importantly, emotionally driven. It’s also one of the key scenes in the movie and subtle pre-cursor to the grand finale. Like I mentioned in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, part of the joy of movies is hearing the characters really talk to one another.

Much of SE7EN takes place in a nameless city that’s filthy, crime ridden, and rains a lot. Think if Seattle and New York had a baby and decided to move to a sprawling city like Los Angeles. I think the point of not naming the city was to show that any area with a dense population and urban decay was susceptible to the declining morals of society.

In relation to the biblical aspect, the rain could be a symbol of a city trying to wash away its own sins and someone like John Doe is needed to lead the way. The film could be seen as a statement on the hypocrisy of good and evil. Or maybe it’s simple: as Kurosawa once said, rain just heightens the drama from a theatrical sense. Either way, what makes a great thriller is atmosphere. With all due respect to Walker, the cast and crew, why SE7EN warrants repeat viewings is because of David Fincher.

SE7EN is even more proof that film is a director’s medium. A heartfelt apology goes to actors, screenwriters, cinematographers, etc. but…it just is.

If this material was in the hands of the wrong director, the movie would take a nose-dive. It was, actually. In 1998, Joel Schumacher directed another Andrew Kevin Walker script called 8mm, and it turned out to be your standard thriller-of-the-week.

Fincher is a director that’s proven time and time again that genre films can elevate past their constrictions. SE7EN, THE GAME (another favorite of mine), THE PANIC ROOM, ZODIAC, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, and GONE GIRL. In the hands of Fincher, they are directed with style, intelligence, and drama. You actually care about the characters and their situations as opposed to, “Who’s the killer!? OMG…Don’t go down that basement!”

A director is responsible for many things in a film: style, performances, pacing, doling out information, cinematic vocabulary of the camera, etc. all so the audience is engaged with the story. Fincher has a mastery over all of these things. He got his start directing music videos in the 1980s (essentially silent movies) which explains why his films are so clear and visually interesting. Nothing’s muddled.

In SE7EN, every shot is like an Edward Hopper painting. The images are created with extreme deliberation and caution. Fincher’s visuals match Walker’s screenplay both in depravity and horror. From the opening 16mm montage from the killer’s point-of-view to the intense chase scene in the rain, it isn’t just beautiful for the sake of being beautiful. It’s the respect of the craft.

  • Every point of information in the story is clear to the audience and balances well with the characters and their relationships.
  • All the camera angles are in the correct spot.
  • All the edits are perfect length.
  • The actors are blocked carefully.
  • There is a careful precision in the costume and overall production design.

I’d say about…90% of directors working (including myself) don’t have this level of skill.

In fact, most directors just go, “Let’s the put the camera here, shoot coverage, and hand it off to the editor and he or she will find the humanity.”

Wrong.

A director must have a reason to shoot close. Wide. Use this color. Clarify any bumps in the narrative. There are a million questions that go into the execution of a scene, but many filmmakers have neither the abilities nor the concern. This is why most movies suck. I mean it starts with a good story but if you can’t tell a story properly, that can seriously derail your film.

Fincher has always been an influence for me ever since I first saw SE7EN on TV. I was around 7 or 8 (thanks mom and dad). It made such an impression on me that I kept thinking about it as I got older. I remember following every movie Fincher made after that and thinking why isn’t this guy a powerhouse like Hitchcock or Scorsese?

Today, Fincher is a powerhouse filmmaker and deservedly so. We need more directors like him that aren’t just art house names if we want to hold onto the idea that Hollywood can still be creative and commercial. I don’t know about you, but I still enjoy going to the movies for the sheer pleasure of being in a theatre for 2 hours. I don’t really care for the idea that Netflix or YouTube (though they’re awesome too) will take over cinema because movies should be seen on the big screen. And Fincher is a rare director that is worth the price of admission.

I didn’t write much about the SE7EN’s story because I think you should just watch this movie. I’m a fan of it because I appreciate Fincher’s craft, the performances, and the level of engagement Walker’s screenplay demands. I’m sure most of you have seen this movie anyway. If not, you’re in for a great terror. In fact, it’d be a deadly sin not to see this movie.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

  • Whoever plays the killer in this movie is a fuckin’ amazing actor. I wish I knew his name…
  • The great Darius Khondji lensed this film and under Fincher’s guidance revolutionized the bleach bypass look that would influence countless movies from 1996–2012; now, it seems like we’ve gone back to color.
  • This movie is flat out beautiful from the sets, the props, lighting, everything.
  • That Morgan Freeman man. I could watch him painting a wall and it would be interesting.
  • R. Lee Ermey, John C. McGinley, and the other minor actors are perfectly cast in this role
  • I love the library scene set to Mozart’s ‘Air on a G String’ — Fincher might be showing off but it’s a beautiful sequence
  • I mentioned in my THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS review that most people are pretty desensitized to violence nowadays, so I can’t imagine what people thought of this movie back in 1995

This is part of an ongoing series where I will be doing movie reviews from my original ESSENTIALS Film List.

Written by

Filmmaker | Photographer | MatthewOquendo.com

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