“Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.”
That quote has stuck with me my entire life after viewing David Fincher’s Se7en for the first time prior to my teenage years. A film that is terrifying to watch for first timers and even more absorbing for those, like myself, who return for multiple viewings. Horror films are often defined by what scares the audience- a mad slasher stalking young camp counselors, a young girl possessed by an entity known only as the devil and perhaps a creature lurking in the shadows waiting for the opportunity to pounce on an unsuspecting traveler; these are just some examples. But there are some that merely scare by offering you to use your imagination in order to create the fear that will stay with you. Se7en is one of the films.
Se7en is a film that when mentioned to my friends and co-workers instantly have a reaction and remember one key moment from the film. It’s a great movie for a lot of reasons but be warned, Se7en isn’t for the faint of heart. So, how is a movie about two detectives on the trail of a killer still haunt people who’ve seen it? How does it compare to other films in its genre and what was the legacy it produced. And, for a film that features many grisly moments, why is it one of my favorite films of all time?
Se7en is a thriller that involves two detectives who are investigating a series of murders that are connected by the seven deadly sins. Each murder is elaborately staged and inventive in their own disturbing ways. I won’t get into specifics but if this is your first time viewing it, it’ll absolutely shock you. The cop formula is present here such as the young hotshot cop pairing up with the older, more restrained one. Think of Lethal Weapon but without the fun chaotic gun play. They are two opposites on the same coin and their partnership within this investigation brings them together in ways that they couldn’t have expected.
First, we have William Somerset (Morgan Freeman). He’s the cop who’s due to retire in one week and is looking forward to closing the book on the life that he’s lived as a cop. He’s seen too much while on the force and seems to have lost hope in a world that could be good. He’s witnessed the violence, the brutality and the cruelty of living in the city. Crime will continue and it will just go on and on and never stop. Somerset does his job to the best of his ability but we see it in his face that he’s exhausted.
Now we turn to David Mills (Brad Pitt), a detective who fought to be reassigned to the city. He’s not exactly a hotshot in that respect but he’s a guy who is serious about his job. He’s young and has seen his fair share of crime and awfulness but when compared to Somerset, well it’s not even close. David has moved to the city with his wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) to start a new life as opposed to the one they left behind upstate.
Together, Mills and Somerset have their work cut out for them. The murders they investigate relate to the seven deadly sins as mentioned in numerous works such as- The Holy Bible, Dante’s Inferno and even Paradise Lost. These sins are the motivation for the killer and the crime scenes are quite graphic to say the least. The killer isn’t toying with the police, he’s preaching in a demented sort of way. The victims are being punished for the sins they have committed and the killer acts as the judge, jury and executioner so to speak.
With the murders, it’s revealed that the killer doesn’t just straight up kill them but forces them to make a decision to atone for their sins. Now, what are the seven deadly sins? They are Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Pride, Lust and Envy. Seven murders will be committed and thus seven lessons will be learned.
Does this sound somewhat familiar to you? Well, if you are part of the younger generation that grew up with the Saw movies then you would be correct. If you do some reading, you’ll discover that Leigh Whannell (co-creator of Saw) drew inspiration from the killer in Se7en. They both display a lack of empathy towards their victims, have a God complex where they feel they are allowed to judge others with the harshest of punishments inflicted and feel that what they are doing is teaching everyone a sermon on their sins.
The thing that fascinates me the most about Se7en is the idea of not seeing the murders, or in this case, the torture that’s intended for the victims. Instead, we are shown photographs of the crime scenes and hearing the detectives talk out what happened. It’s extremely effective and in some cases is more horrifying because hearing what happened etches images in our mind and at times, those pictures never go away. Director David Fincher makes good use of these scenes with one mention involving the Lust murder scene. A man is forced to complete an action that undoubtedly scars him for life. Leland Orser is chilling for just a few moments as he describes his encounter with the killer but it’s that scene alone that still haunts me to this day.
The main thing that people remember from Se7en is its ending. One that’s unexpected, haunting and perhaps one of the most terrifying endings in film history. Personally, I love endings that don’t adhere to formula or one that the audience can guess before it happens. I call them “non-traditional endings”. Everyone recalls the conclusion of Se7en and thanks to screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker for delivering an exceptional screenplay. Although the script was changed numerous times and a different ending was proposed it was David Fincher, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman who fought with New Line Cinema to keep the original ending intact.
Se7en was released on September 22 1995 and became one of the highest grossing film of the year with very positive reviews from critics. Despite the film obtaining the “R” rating, I feel that Se7en rightfully deserves the “NC-17” rating. The images are haunting, the mood is creepy and the ending really gets under your skin. The film does take place in a large city where it’s always raining. The buildings look dilapidated, the people appear to have had better days and now the police are on the hunt for a deranged killer on the loose who’s staging brutal yet bizarre crimes. One thing to note is the style of clothing in the film which looks somewhat out of date for ’90s. Perhaps the late forties or even fifties for that matter.
As a fan of David Fincher, he makes good use of detail in his movies. The details are usually put to the side and not a main attraction but if you look closely you can notice some interesting things. The little tree air fresheners hanging from the ceiling in a man’s apartment, the trophies the detectives find in the killer’s apartment and the letters of the sins written where the victim lay dead. Rain plays big factor in Se7en, it rains the entire movie mostly. This alone also sets a mood that is creepy because not even the rain can wash away the evils of the world.
In speaking of style, the opening and closing credits are worth mentioning. One gives us a preview of the killer while the other challenges traditional movies tropes. Both are very effective and the addition of the Nine Inch Nails song “Closer” adds a nice touch to the opening as well.
Se7en made a splash in the crime/thriller drama genre and helped propel Fincher as a fine director of that category. With later titles such as The Game, Fight Club and perhaps his finest film to date- Zodiac; David Fincher is perhaps the Alfred Hitchcock of our time. A master of suspense and leaving the audience holding their breath with his list of impressive accolades. I hold Se7en in very high regard for a couple of reasons. First, I do enjoy movies who dare to go down a dark path. With the grisly imagery and disturbing crime scenes, Se7en had the audacity to go where others wouldn’t dare. Sure, the average audience wouldn’t see a movie that showcases such depravity but I do believe there’s an audience out there who are willing to take that chance and explore something unique.
Se7en explores the seven deadly sins in a fascinating way by warping them into the mind of a deranged man who believes his purpose in life is to make the sinner repent in the harshest of ways. It’s an original idea that boasts excellent characters, a wonderful cast (which includes the late R. Lee Ermy, John McGinley, Richard Roundtree and Mark Boone Junior) and one heck of a memorable movie. You’ll notice that I didn’t include the actor who portrayed the killer named John Doe. He too isn’t in the opening credits. An idea suggested by the actor himself in order to keep in secret who the killer was.
There are other movies that delve into the depravity of killers and the cops who pursue them. Take Manhunter, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and even the one that everyone loves The Silence of the Lambs. Now, everyone urged me to see The Silence of the Lambs and personally I didn’t enjoy the film. Perhaps, I’m biased because I saw Se7en first, but even then, Se7en is unlike any other movies prior to its release or the ones aforementioned. It’s extremely dark, morbidly graphic and also very intelligent.
So, why is Se7en one of my favorite movies? Well, I love the cast and the writing. It’s a film that really pushed the envelope but did it in an intelligent way. Instead of flooding the screen with gore and slashings, the film opted to require the audience to fill in the blanks. For some, it may be too much, but for me, Se7en is a film that opens the eyes and dares you to not look away. It’s not for everyone and considering the fact that it isn’t a horror film, it’s a damn scary one nonetheless.
One Last Note
For those who’ve seen Se7en you may have some questions that still linger. How did John Doe find all his victims? How did he get access to them? What was going on in his mind? Well, you should check out the comic strip SE7EN that was published in 2008 by Zenescope Entertainment that tells the story from John Doe’s perspective. It’s an interesting read but I’d rather be absorbed by the mystery of not knowing. The film doesn’t give us all the answers and even when we venture into apartment #604, we are still left with little answers and I enjoy that. I love having questions linger in my mind after a film is over and in regards to Se7en I’ve always wondered.
But if you’re looking for some answers then be sure to check out the comic strip and even the film’s novelization. Now, that its twenty-five years old now, it’s still haunting as ever. The style is unique, the direction is fantastic and without the dedication to keep Andrew Kevin Walker’s script alive and original, Se7en stills stands as one of the most effective thrillers of the ’90s. It’s dark atmosphere, moody setting and chilling aftermath made it one of the scariest films ever made and not being a horror film makes it all the more effective.
It may not sit well with everyone but no one can deny it’s effectiveness. To put it simply, Se7en is a masterpiece and if you haven’t seen it yet, then prepare for an unforgettable ride through hell.