Directed by David Fincher.
Starring Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Richard Roundtree, R. Lee Ermey, John C. McGinley and Kevin Spacey.
Detectives Mills and Somerset find themselves locked in a battle of wits with a meticulous and sadistic serial killer using the Seven Deadly Sins as his modus operandi.
I don’t know what it is about them, but, I have a strange fascination with serial killers and, judging by the popularity of true crime podcasts and documentaries, I’m clearly not alone. Cinema is packed full of all manner of monstrous figures turning murder into a twisted art form, however, in my view, one film stands out as the best and “brightest” of this particular niche genre; David Fincher’s Se7en.
If there is one word that can best summarise Se7en, it would be this; grim. Beginning with its opening scene of Morgan Freeman’s Somerset surveying a crime scene before transitioning to its mood-setting credits (more on those later) and continuing to the increasingly vicious murder sites in a miserable city in which it never stops raining. Se7en sucks you into a world of pain and suffering from which there is no hope and no escape. While this could make for a depressing watch, the intelligent script by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Fincher’s meticulous direction make for an exciting and meditative take on the serial killer sub-genre.
The genius of Se7en lies not in what we see but in what we don’t see. While the whole story is built around these murders, we never ever witness them being committed. We, like the detectives, are shown only the gruesome aftermath and forced to try and deduce meaning from them. The real horror of these murders lies in their correlation with the Seven Deadly Sins, which inevitably leads to creative and increasingly disturbing crime scenes. For my money, the aftermath of the “Lust” murder is most frightening as a customer at a brothel is forced to rape a woman to death with a monstrous contraption. Again, the impact of the murder lies in that, thankfully, we never see it being committed. We don’t even get a clear view of the crime scene, the small pieces we can make out over the shoulders of Detective Mills and Somerset, as well as the photos of the murder weapon painting a far more terrifying image than any special effects creation ever could.
Se7en’s strength lies in the performances of its two leads; Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt as Detectives Somerset and Mills respectively. Freeman delivers what I feel is one of his best performances as Somerset, an understated portrayal of a gifted but jaded detective who always tries to look at the meaning behind the crimes he investigates. Pitt also delivers a terrific performance as Mills, a much more forthright and energetic man who could make for a brilliant detective if not for his short fuse and lack of patience.
While Pitt and Freeman make for an unlikely pairing, the believable chemistry and clashing temperaments work brilliantly together. The more meditative Freeman, a man who will spend all night reading classical poetry to understand his killer, expertly playing off the more brash Pitt, who promptly tosses his copy of Dante’s Inferno in frustration after reading a single page.
This “show don’t tell” approach serves to empower the film’s elusive killer known only as “John Doe”. A deranged yet intelligent psychopath whose terrifying presence hangs over every frame, always seemingly lurking over the shoulders of our protagonists. Yet, even when he finally reveals himself, Doe is still a terrifying presence thanks to an extended cameo from Kevin Spacey, whose icy demeanour and calm delivery creates an unsettling and creepy screen presence (and this was before his career imploded).
While Se7en was not David Fincher’s directorial debut, it was the first chance in which he was given the freedom to create the type of film that he wanted to make, resisting nearly all studio interference to “brighten up” things up. The cinematographer is superb at creating a gloomy atmosphere, the de-saturated colour scheme giving every frame a dour and drab look like a crime scene photo in motion. The constant rainfall (except, tellingly, for the climax) also adds to the overall grim vibe. As do the crime-ridden city streets that it makes the unnamed setting seem less like a place to live and more like somewhere you go if you seek out suffering. However, my favourite part of the film is the opening credits, as it depicts the killer preparing himself for his spree. The sequence perfectly sets the tone for the misery to come. The scratchy film stock, scrawled handwritten title cards (which were said to be etched into the frames themselves) ominous music, nightmarishly edited imagery of murder and fingerprint slicing making the sequence feel like a trip into the mind of the killer. And what a scary trip it is.
While I could go on and on about this film, I think you should just go and watch it now. A grim tone, strong performances from Freeman and Pitt, Fincher’s pitch-perfect direction and the intelligent script ensure that Se7en is easily one of the best, if not the, best serial killer/detective film ever made.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★