THE STORY – When retiring police Detective William Somerset tackles a final case with the aid of newly transferred David Mills, they discover a number of elaborate and grizzly murders. They soon realize they are dealing with a serial killer who is targeting people he thinks represent one of the seven deadly sins. Somerset also befriends Mills’ wife, Tracy, who is pregnant and afraid to raise her child in the crime-riddled city.
THE CAST – Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Spacey, R. Lee Ermey, Richard Rountree & John C. McGinley
THE TEAM – David Fincher (Director) & Andrew Kevin Walker (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 127 Minutes
The career that almost wasn’t. David Fincher had already established himself as one of the premiere music video directors in the world by the early 1990s. Still, the disastrous production of “Alien 3” (1992), his debut feature, nearly soured him on Hollywood for good. “I thought I’d rather die of colon cancer than do another movie,” he famously quipped. “Alien 3” has amassed a cult reputation in the years since, but Fincher’s sophomore effort, the one he was dead set against making, helped solidify him as one of the finest thriller directors of all time.
“Seven,” or “Se7en,” if you want to emulate the film’s glitchy opening credits, is a masterpiece. Generally, there’s a tendency to bury the lead in a review so that the writer’s ultimate opinion can be unveiled at the end, but I’ve got little in the way of critiques when it comes to this harrowing account of the seven deadly sins.
Ostensibly, “Seven” is made up of components that we’ve seen countless times in crime dramas and noir films: a veteran detective named Somerset (Morgan Freeman) with one week left until retirement, a rookie detective named Mills (Brad Pitt) who’s as cocky as he is eager to help, and a serial killer named John Doe (Kevin Spacey, in a performance that’s even more chilling today), who seemingly chooses his victims at random. Seemingly. The detectives quickly realize that Doe is singling out those who are committing deadly sins and dispatching them in ways that punish their specific brand of blasphemy. It’s the sort of premise that cuts together well for trailers and poster taglines, which is why rookie screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker was able to sell it to New Line Cinema.
New Line saw dollar signs as long as Walker was willing to play ball and trim some of the story’s darker aspects (especially the ending). Nothing doing. The studio initially meant to send a revised version of the script to Fincher, but they did exactly the opposite, and upon reading the original, the director decided that it was too good to pass up. Fincher and Walker are two years apart in age, and both men were fascinated by the notion of evil as an illness, as something one can’t rid themselves of once they’ve been infected. They wanted to depict the slow, agonizing slide into despair that so many procedurals and thrillers sought to avoid, and they did it with a style that was unlike anything being made at the time.
Walker’s talent as a writer lies in his ability to take worn tropes like mismatched detectives and imbue them with a sharpness and a specificity that makes them unique. Somerset may be the millionth policeman wearing a trenchcoat and fedora at a crime scene. Still, the emphasis on details like his morning routine or his need to unwind to the beat of a metronome suggests an interiority that most screen depictions lack. “Seven” has a reputation for being one of the most gruesome serial killer stories ever told, but once more, the suggestions made through dialogue— or lack thereof — wind up having the most significant impact. The ending, for example, is one of the most famous plot twists of the last 30 years, and we never actually see what’s in the box. It’s all communicated through shell-shocked silence and Somerset’s desperate attempts to calm his partner before he emotionally implodes. Less, in this instance, is exponentially more.
Walker’s script could have been mangled or mishandled in the wrong hands. Fincher’s hands proved ideal. The opening credits, in which fingerprint-less hands are shown scribbling to the sounds of Nine Inch Nails, is the moment Fincher transitions from music video wunderkind to genre master, and he does so by wielding the same intuitive knack for matching subject matter to the aesthetic. The unnamed city in which the murders take place is immaculately rendered and ugly, a cesspool that has more in common with Gotham City than any actual location. The chase scenes are frantic and sloppy; Mills’ attempt to catch Doe leads to him taking a crowbar to the head and face-planting on the pavement. Still, there is beauty in the ugliness. The crime scenes, each of which comes with a deadly sin scribbled on the wall, are tableaus of blood and body parts that are worth pausing to fully absorb their detail. Fincher has long been identified as a director with an exacting, borderline obsessive approach to each of his frames, and it’s here that the reputation is born.
While making “Seven,” Fincher also discovered how much fun he has playing with Brad Pitt’s movie star persona. Pitt had established himself as a capable, albeit stiff lead in period dramas like “A River Runs Through It” (1992) and “Legends of the Fall” (1994), but “Seven” gave him the chance to channel the weirder, unwieldy energy he’d previously only been able to bring to supporting roles. Mills is a stock hero who should rise to the occasion and shed whatever naivete he initially possessed on his way to getting the bad guy. The operative word here is “should.” Fincher and Pitt flip it around, making the character’s naivete and his heroism the very things that prove his undoing. It’s crushing even when you know it’s coming. Freeman refines the cynicism he’d previously brandished in “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994), but instead of deliverance, his character gets the devastating confirmation that all of his worst fears about humanity were true. It’s a performance that gets better and better with each new viewing, mainly because it’s less showy than Pitt’s.
Fincher’s interest in serial killers has manifested in fascinatingly different ways over the years. “Zodiac” (2007) is a decades-spanning exploration grounded in historical accuracy, and the concession that not knowing can sometimes be worse than physical harm. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (2011) is a chilling exploration of sex, violence, and the influence the wealthy can wield over the weak. “Seven” may lack the polish of these latter efforts or the psychological depth of Fincher’s beloved series “Mindhunter” (2017-19). However, it makes up for it through an irresistible blend of style, career-making performances, and moments that still rank among the most iconic in the director’s lengthy career.