‘Se7en’ Revisited: The Films of David Fincher

[With Mindhunter set to premiere next week, we’re reposting our deep dives into the work of director David Fincher. These articles contain spoilers.]

Where as Alien3 has been forgotten thanks to ignominy, the shadow of the first two Alien movies, and its botched production, Se7en has persevered for almost twenty years if for no other reason than what’s in the fucking box.  Se7en is where David Fincher‘s filmography truly begins, and it’s fitting that a director who self-identifies as cynical should lead with a movie that abhors human nature, massacres the good in more ways than one, and even feels slight reverence towards its heinous killer.  There’s a beauty to the cruelty as the movie presents a stylized realism that taps into a rotting, fetid world but does so without establishing a particular locale, drenching the unnamed city in rain, and sinking the shots into darkness and low angles.

Se7en is where David Fincher finally got to come out and play.  Alien 3 was a trap that became a prison and eventually he just had to flee from the depressing hellhole of that production.  He returned to music videos thinking he would never make another movie again, and when Se7en came along, he went all in on a “meditation on evil and how evil gets on you and you can’t get it off.”   Fincher didn’t return with an open palm.  He came back with a clenched fist.

We don’t meet John Doe (Kevin Spacey) until almost the end of the movie, but Fincher brings us right inside his mind with the opening credits.  The cold open is but a somber prologue to the evil we’re about to witness, and yet there’s an artfulness to Doe’s technique.  In the commentary track, Fincher argues that Doe has “more enthusiasm, than technique,” but I beg to differ. Somerset (Morgan Freeman) agrees that something like keeping the Sloth victim alive for a year takes incredible will, but it can’t be done without technique.  Doe is certainly zealous, but he’s also precise, exacting, and almost completely uncompromising unless backed into a corner, at which point he still makes it work to his advantage.  Let me know if this description reminds you of anyone.

Image via New Line Cinema

Part of what makes Se7en timeless isn’t just the subject matter or the famous twist.  It’s because Fincher managed to balance the real with the stylized.  For all the ugliness in our world, there is no place as persistently bad as the unnamed city because it’s unhooked from time and space.  Somerset works on a typewriter, but other detectives in the precinct use computers.  There are no pop-culture references, advertisements, or any other notifications of era beyond a subdued tone that lets us know we’re in the mid-90s, but it’s not a 90s film beyond the fact that it probably couldn’t get made in today’s all-or-nothing studio model.  Compare this to Zodiac where we’re firmly in the 1970s, but as Fincher points out in his commentary on Se7en, “sin is not modern.”  It’s timeless.

Despite the pervasive ugliness of the unnamed city, Fincher doesn’t make it appealing from start to finish.  The crimes are undoubtedly grotesque, but Somerset and Mills (Brad Pitt) aren’t deeply damaged people.  In the cold open, Somerset—who knows he can’t stick around any longer—still cares whether or not a child saw a gruesome murder.  Mills and Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) are an idyllic couple who have wandered into the netherworld.  They’re high-school sweethearts, Mills took the job because he “thought he could do some good,” and some of his ties are surprisingly goofy given his profession.  The young couple even believed they weren’t going to get scammed into an apartment where a train rides by; a little bit of sinister symbolism as the city outside shakes the foundations of their home.

Image via New Line Cinema

The positivity in these relationships is obviously a necessary lifeboat, otherwise we would drown in the perverse surroundings despite the seductive cinematography and design.  Se7en is a delightful study in contrasts as Fincher plunges deep into the recesses of an ugly world made even uglier by John Doe’s crimes, and yet there’s a meticulous care in the setting.  The only time Fincher goes handheld is when he’s forced to do so in the foot chase with Mills and Doe.  Even when the SWAT team is storming the Sloth victim’s home, Fincher keeps it steady, which is a particularly nice trick when you consider the control of the scene is absolutely uprooted by the fact that the Sloth victim is still “alive”.

John Doe is, for all of his madness, also an artist, and Fincher has a disturbing respect for that.  It wasn’t enough to simply tie up the Sloth victim or make the Greed victim cut out a piece of flesh.  The Gluttony victim is all execution.  He feeds the fat man until he bursts.  But the Greed victim is given a scale; the Sloth victim’s apartment is filled with pine tree air fresheners; the Pride victim has the sin description written across her vanity photo; and the lust victim—we don’t even see it because it’s too grotesque to even enter the room.  Clearly, these touches are part of John Doe’s expression beyond just writing the sin, and therefore it’s more effective both to his audience and the film’s.  But Fincher doesn’t disrupt it.  The handheld scene is the sole disruption partially by necessity, but it’s also the only time things don’t go according to John Doe’s plan.

Image via New Line Cinema

And let’s be fair: it’s the elaborate plan that can only happen in a movie, and not just because of the extravagant crime scenes.  John Doe needs the detectives for the culmination of his plan, but he hides the very first clue behind a refrigerator and hopes that there’s a cop clever enough to figure out that the floor shavings would lead to that clue.  He would also need to make sure that the Greed victim’s widow noticed the painting was upside down, which would lead to forensics dusting the wall for fingerprints.  Additionally, his plan is flexible enough that he can speed up his timetable after confronting Mills and Somerset and trying to kill them in the hallway.  We can fill in excuses, but the tightness of the script does leave these flaws a bit glaring, although none of them derail the movie because we’ve been trained to accept movie serial killer logic, and the film isn’t really about the particulars of his plan as much as what that plan means.

There are seven deadly sins, but there are also seven cardinal virtues: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.  The movie never mentions these because virtue is in short supply.  It’s not that he world of Se7en is showing us all the sins that Doe sees on a daily basis, or even that Doe is right.  His issue is with the casualness of which we accept sin, and virtue is therefore meaningless.

Image via New Line Cinema

Accounting for the sins, Doe clearly represents “Wrath”.  It’s the only way to kill and torture others, but instead, Doe assigns that sin to Mills.  Furthermore, Mills must “become” Wrath.  It’s a transference representing the film’s ultimate statement on the pervasiveness of sin.  A man who came to “do some good” is faced with a decision to kill someone who is clearly evil, but he’s not killing Doe because he’s evil.  He’s killing him as an act of pure vengeance, and a vengeance the audience can sympathize with.

Rather than accept “Wrath” as his own sin, Doe casually takes “envy”, and it’s almost because there’s nothing left.  He envies the life of a normal man, and Spacey says it with a sigh.  It’s just another sin in a world filled with them.  It’s the casual sin John Doe witnessed every day, and now he takes it upon himself as if it were just a sad inevitability.  This is in contrast to Mills, whose very soul is faced with an impossible choice.

Image via New Line Cinema

So I have to admit I feel some consternation when it all comes back to “What’s in the fucking box,” when there’s so much more outside of it.  The box has become so pervasive that people misremember it.  Talking to The Guardian, Fincher angrily rejected that Se7en started “torture porn”, and noted that he “almost had a fist-fight with a woman at a Beverly Hills cocktail party because she said ‘There is no need to make a stand in of Gwyneth Paltrow’s head to find in the box.  You don’t need to see that.’ And I said, ‘Well, we didn’t.’ And she said, ‘Oh yes, you did.’

What people are really recalling is the gutsiness of the ending.  They saw a movie that was deep, dark, and disturbing, and they needed some light.  Some probably felt entitled to it.  But what attracted Fincher to the project was the exact opposite.  As he explained to the Guardian:

So this script was floating around and my agent, who’s very sweet and always very hopeful, said, “You know, New Line is interested in this. You might like this, and they might want to make it with you, so maybe you should read it.” So I read it, and got to the end, with the head in the box, and I called him and said, “This is fantastic, this is so great because I had thought it was a police procedural; now it’s this meditation on evil and how evil gets on you and you can’t get it off.” And he said, “What are you talking about?” And I talked about the whole head-in-the-box thing, she’s been dead for hours and there’s no bullshit chase across town and the guy driving on sidewalks to get to the woman, who’s drawing a bath while the serial killer sneaks in the back window. And he goes, “Oh, they sent you the wrong draft.” [audience laughs] And he sent me the right draft, and there was a guy driving across town on sidewalks, serial killer sneaking in the back window.

The Se7en we got was basically because Fincher and producer Mike De Luca were sneaky and clever.  This time, Fincher had circumvented the people who had hamstrung him on Alien3.  The lesson from Alien 3 was that “it’s always going to be your fault” so why not take full credit whether people go for it or not?  Alien 3 is a disaster and it’s arguably the most important movie in Fincher’s development as a director.  If he played the game on that movie and the production ran fine and the movie was a modest success, the lesson could have been you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.  Instead, Fincher learned you catch more flies with a fucking bug zapper, and that if you’re not going to do it your way and to the best of your ability, then there’s no point in making it.  You can see that as recently as him walking away from the Steve Jobs movie.  If it’s not going to be daring, uncomfortable, and “scar”, then it’s not worth making.

Image via New Line Cinema

The ending does make the movie more than a police procedural, but it’s only the culmination of what came before.  To be honest, I don’t know another way the movie can end because it would be in such stark contrast to all the other disturbing scenes.  How can you give a happy ending to a movie where you have Leland Orser‘s character freaking out in the interrogation room (a scene that creeps me out every single time)? Granted, those scenes are disturbing in part because of how they’re shot and constructed, but this notion of a last-minute foot chase to stop the killer is meant to satisfy the audience, and let them believe there’s some kind of karmic justice in place if you can just outrun your brilliant antagonist.

It’s hopeful, but it’s not real as it pertains to what came before.  It’s true that on a surface level, Se7en isn’t real either.  It’s the soul of the movie that’s real because not everything John Doe says is necessarily wrong.  It’s very disturbing when you think, “I don’t agree with this lunatic, but I see his point.”  The reality of Se7en is in the sins and how they don’t stay in a neat little box where a detective solves a case and the sin goes away.

Image via New Line Cinema

Here’s how Fincher puts it on the commentary track:

I look at Se7en and I see something that was trying to be very realistic.  It may be incredibly stylized but it was always in the tension.  The thing that was forefront of my mind: how to make it rotting and how to make it real.

Se7en was the success David Fincher needed to begin his film career in earnest, but his follow-up was oddly more concerned with filmmaking than storytelling.

Next: The Game

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