A few days ago, a friend on Twitter posted asking if anyone knew where to find the director’s cut of ‘Se7en’ - the one where you get to see the massive surprise at the end of the film. Being the David Fincher fanatic that I am, I piped in to inform them that there was no director's cut of the film, and that the shocking revelation was never explicitly filmed, only implied. "I was so sure I’d seen it though," they responded.
That conversation hits on something quite potent about David Fincher’s 1995 thriller, still regarded as one of the finest of its genre. Even after twenty years, the images and ideas it burrows into our minds are impossible to shake, whether they be the ones we think we saw (like the iconic ending) or the many we actually did, gothic tableaux concocted by a mind that would instantly establish itself as one of the darkest in the history of cinema.
The kernel at the heart of ‘Se7en’ is the neat little concept presented by screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker – a serial killer who chooses his victims in accordance with the Seven Deadly Sins. The 90s were awash with these "concept thrillers" - films that could be whittled down to a poppy, pithy premise. In lesser hands, ‘Se7en’ could easily have disappeared as quickly as films like ‘The Bone Collector’ or ‘Along Came A Spider’. What Walker had in mind though was a different kind of thriller, one far more intelligent and literate than its contemporaries. It follows two cops – Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman), seven days away from his retirement, and Detective Mills (Brad Pitt), his young volatile replacement. Mills is partnered with Somerset for the week so he can show him the ropes... and this is when a series of bizarre killings begin to appear, one each day, and each making direct references to the Seven Deadly Sins – gluttony, greed, sloth, lust, pride, envy and wrath.
I have my dad to thank for introducing me to ‘Se7en’. He knew how much I loved ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, and promised me he knew a film just as good. I was 15 at the time, so I had to rely on him to hire the R-rated VHS from the video store for me. Over a bowl of spaghetti bolognese (which we quickly realised was the worst possible dinner choice for this movie), I sat with my eyes glued to the screen, hypnotised and intoxicated by this dark tapestry of the film. When it reached its staggering final act, my teenage mind was twisted into knots by its moral conundrums. Something had shifted for me – not only had I discovered that the grey area between good and evil was far more fascinating than anything black or white, but I had been introduced to one of the cinematic voices that still influences me to this day.
That said, it would be a massive disservice to Walker to lay all the praise for ‘Se7en’ at Fincher’s feet, because the groundwork laid by the screenplay is monumental. It sets itself apart in two important ways – firstly, it treats its audience with intelligence, engaging with classical sources such as Dante, John Milton and St Thomas Aquinus, rather than just using them as texture. Secondly, and most importantly, it goes to extraordinary lengths to develop its central characters. Somerset and Mills are the antithesis of one another. Somerset is crippled by years on the force, witnessing the worst of humanity on a daily basis. Driven to the edge of nihilism, his retirement is the light at the end of the tunnel, a light that seems further and further away as the bodies begin to appear. Mills, still young and driven, rebels against his partner’s steady and tired approach with youthful bombast, determined to make a name for himself as quickly as possible and provide for his wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow). So much of ‘Se7en’ revolves around the conversations between these two men, both candid and philosophical, punctuated by acts of violence that horrify with their creativity and fury.
As great as Walker’s screenplay is though, when it was placed in the hands of David Fincher, it became something of a work of art.
Fincher had made a name for himself as a music video director, but was still languishing in the wake of his first disastrous experience as a feature film director on ‘Alien 3’. It may have suggested an intriguing visual style, but the film was a mess, and Fincher had suffered artistically from it. However, with the screenplay of ‘Se7en’ in his hands, and working with a team that included cinematographer Darius Khondji, editor Richard Francis-Bruce, production designer Arthur Max and composer Howard Shore, Fincher had finally found the means to demonstrate his unique version of American Gothic. The world of ‘Se7en’ is a gruelling one, rain-soaked and filthy, full of shadows and sharp angles. It’s a film noir shot in daylight, a slow-burning descent into Dante’s Inferno as a modern metropolis. After the uncertainty of ‘Alien 3’, we find him in complete control, each frame perfectly composed, the editing building in a perfect rhythm, and the landscape crafted like a vision of hell filtered through Norman Rockwell. We the audience are placed with an objective eye, the film never lapsing into cheap drama or thrills. The hands at the wheel are gripping tight and moving minutely, every twist and turn achieved with microscopic precision. And when it delivers its punches, each perfectly timed and weighted, they hit with the velocity of a train. I said the images in ‘Se7en’ are almost impossible to forget, and I’m not overstating that. Each of the seven set-pieces is as gruesome, as disturbing and as visually breathtaking as the last, some of the truest visions of evil and insanity rendered on film. It still possesses some of the most disturbing moments and images in any of his films, and that they still resonate after all this time and its passage into pop culture are a testament to their power. ‘Alien 3’ might be his first feature and demonstrates some of the hallmarks of his later work, but ‘Se7en’ is the first true David Fincher film, cold and calculating and arresting from beginning to end.
The world of ‘Se7en’ is a gruelling one, rain-soaked and filthy, full of shadows and sharp angles.
It’s also in ‘Se7en’ that we see for the first time his incredible gift with actors. The camera might be objective and steely, but the performances are nuanced and passionate. Somerset is still one of Morgan Freeman’s finest characters, cracked and crumbling and utterly resilient. Faced with the enormity of the killings, he charts a careful balance of horror and awe that he’s never matched. Brad Pitt hits it completely out of the ballpark as Mills, the best kind of sound and fury. In fact, most of Pitt’s best work has been in his collaborations with Fincher, which began with ‘Se7en’. Fincher is well-known for his pedantic attention to detail, but what that achieves with his actors is a kind of transcendence of themselves, a revelation of colours and textures you never knew they had. There is of course one other staggering performance in ‘Se7en’, but for those who haven’t seen it... well, to quote said character, “I don’t want to ruin the surprise”.
And that’s probably the one part of ‘Se7en’ that hits the hardest – its iconic ending. You won’t catch me ruining it here, but the revelations in the final act are still amongst the most unexpected, shocking and intelligent in cinema. It also flies completely in the face of Hollywood filmmaking – this film doesn’t want you to walk away safe and sound, it wants to leave you battered and bleeding. For most of its length, it’s a harrowing, horrifying film, but in its final moments, ‘Se7en’ reveals itself as an utterly unforgiving one.
There’s no question that ‘Se7en’ is responsible for David Fincher’s career. It’s one of his masterpieces, sitting next to ‘Fight Club’, ‘Zodiac’ and ‘The Social Network’ as amongst his finest work. Over the past twenty years, he has sharpened his tools and focused that microscope to a razor's edge, but ‘Se7en’ still takes your breath away with its youthful ferocity, its refusal to compromise or take the easy route. And as I said before, sole praise should not go to Fincher – every artist on this film, both in front of camera and behind, are at the top of their game here. It is a perfect storm of filmmaking, and a storm that still batters its audiences to this day.
‘Se7en’ will always be a special film to me. It gave me an experience as an audience I’ll never forget, it acquainted me with a kind of storytelling I’d never seen before, and introduced me to one of my favourite directors. Whenever I return to it, I’m still in awe of its ferocity and its beauty, a gothic American nightmare that holds you in a vice-like grip and never lets you go, even as the discombobulating credits roll. It’s not only one of the greatest thrillers of all time, but one of the greatest American films and a cinematic icon. There are few films as dark as ‘Se7en’, but also few films as intoxicating. It’s an absolutely perfect creation.