By Jason A. Hill
Se7en, USA, 1995
Directed by David Fincher
David Fincher’s Se7en is a crime thriller set in what appears to be urban Chicago. Two detectives on two different paths and at different stages in their careers track a methodical serial killer who leaves his victims with symbolic clues to the reasons for their murders based on the “seven deadly sins.”
Throughout the film, we are given a bleak view of the world, where it literally seems to never stop raining. William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), a detective close to retirement, and David Mills (Brad Pitt), a detective just starting his career, pursue John Doe (Kevin Spacey), a psychopathic serial killer who, apparently bored with the ease and randomness of killing the old-fashioned way, needs to channel Dante, Milton and Chaucer to find inspiration for his killings. Very early on it’s clear that the detectives aren’t going to catch this killer; otherwise the film would be called Three or Four. Nope, we are going to see all seven deadly sins, and the only questions are why is John Doe doing this, and how is he going to pull it off?
The tone of the film also takes an overly sympathetic view of the killer. Every victim is discovered with more of their death focusing on their “sin,” or why, rather than how, leaving out any need for detective work. Not that super genius “Yoda” killer John Doe would leave any unintended evidence behind, anyway. And I can accept that the film is more about the killer than the cops chasing him, but why then is his motive so elusive? Is he just a sick psychotic with an irresistible flare for irony, or is he a religious nut, hell-bent on re-making the world in the biblical sense?
Even up to this point, the film can still work, but as with most films that leave me so unfulfilled, its ending is as meaningless as it is memorable. As John Doe turns his foolish police pursuers every which way but loose, he completes his murder opus and turns himself in, but only does so in order to let the full impact of his deeds be felt by Detective Mills.
As I said before, the film works on many levels. The dark landscape of the city is very stylized but believable; technically the film stands with the best. The acting is also subtle and effective, and if not for the ridiculousness of the villain’s abilities and the story’s pointless conclusion, we would have a fairly excellent thriller.
At one point in the film the detectives, desperate for a break in the case, illegally acquire John Doe’s library borrowing history and find his apartment, illegally breaking and entering his premises. When John Doe arrives, he outfoxes the flatfoots and even has a moment with Mills, holding him at gunpoint but sparing him for a more gruesome outcome. This kind of bleakness was seen in Fincher’s previous film Alien 3 (1992), where he ended the film with everyone important in that series dead and almost made James Cameron’s 1986 entry Aliens (one of my favorite sci-fi thrillers) completely pointless.
So what is the point of this story? The first place we can look is the closing exposition by Somerset, who quotes one of his favorite writers, Ernest Hemingway: “The world is a sick place, but worth fighting for.” And he agrees with at least the first part of that quote. So the point of Se7en is that the world is a sick place? This seems too simplistic a conclusion for such a detailed and sophisticated thriller. Not only that, but this is just not true. Sure, the world is sometimes a sick place, but sometimes it’s a nurturing and (allow me to channel Louis Armstrong) also a wonderful world, although I think it takes a certain kind of wisdom and understanding to see it sometimes. It is this point of view that separates the protagonist from the antagonist in most stories for me. Any character may make the observation that death and destruction is a proper response to what they may see as a sick world, but it takes a truly higher mind to put that view aside and find some beauty in their sick world. It’s a shame Fincher only gives us the latter in Se7en. Otherwise, we might have seen his killer in a more realistic light, like most real serial killers we have heard of.
I left Se7en feeling that both of the protagonists in this film were victims of their deficiencies – one too cavalier and ignorant, or maybe naive, of the sick world, and the other to unwilling to fully face the horror of this reality. The killer should have narrated this film. I think Se7en had something going with the style and the characters, but in the end it sacrificed poignancy for a punchline ending.
Jason A. Hill is the Founder, Owner and Editor In Chief of Movies I Didn’t Get.com. He is a film critic and writer of articles and film reviews covering a variety of genres and film news that have been syndicated to many sites in the film blogosphere. He specializes in independent film in the US and Asia.
For more information please contact Jason at JasonAHill@MoviesIDidn’tGet.com.