Seven (1995): Fincher’s Brilliant Serial Killer Thriller, Starring Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kevin Spacey

Dark, grim, claustrophobic, scary–and brilliant– the serial killer Seven (aka Se7en) is David Fincher’s second film, a follow-up to his disappointing debut “Alien3.”
Photo: Brad Pitt in one of his strongest performances.
Combining elements of the genres of the serial killer and the buddy-buddy policier, the movie depicts the desperate efforts of two cops, well played by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pit, to stop an ingenious serial killer, whose “art work” is inspired by the seven deadly sins.
Seven is intensely bleak and relentlessly depressing for a star-driven feature to have come out of the Hollywood studio system, which explains why it was made by the mini-major New Line.

On the surface, the film concerns the initially uneasy relationship between the world-weary veteran cop William Somerset (Freeman) and the younger cockier, easily irritable newcomer David Mills (Pitt). That said, the movie is brilliant in defying and playing against viewers¬í expectations. It’s not a typical male buddy-buddy picture, and it’s not a graphically violent. Indeed, rather than showing the act of killing, the film shows the effects. Discovering the aftermath of these crimes is scarier than actually witnessing them. Moreover, the film¬ís style is not realistic but expressionistic with nearly surreal visual scheme and ambiguous tonality.

Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker knows cinema well from hours of watching films a la Tarantino while working as a video clerk at Tower Records. Walker previously wrote “Brainscan” (1994) and “Hideaway” (95), two mediocre horror flicks. However, in his new work, he shrewdly places the killings against the broader socio-moral contexts of American society in the mid-1990s. “Seven,” like other Fincher movies (especially “The Fight Club”) represents a critique of the moral vacuum of society and the dangers of fanaticism, particularly religious fundamentalism.

The entrance of Kevin Spacey, who plays the deranged killer John Doe, is nothing short of shocking, violating the rules of most serial killer procedurals by revealing the killer’s identity mid-way. Up to this point, Doe has evaded his capture. But now, with his arms raised, walking into the police station in broad daylight, he gives himself up. (If you pay attention, you could hear Doe’s voice on the phone while talking to Mills, which is the reason why Spacey is not credited in the opening titles).

Who is John Doe He sports a name that at once connotes an ordinary American (like John Smith) and also signals a link to Frank Capra’s 1941 “Meet John Doe,” starring Gary Cooper as a depressed man about to kill himself on Christmas eve. John Doe is a master storyteller, a man who leaves clues from one murder to the next, expecting the detectives to work harder than the usual in piecing together the puzzle created by him.

Somerset, the brighter, more educated cop, gets Doe¬ís game right away when he says, “His murders are sermons to us.” Later on, Somerset predicts: “This isn’t going to have a happy ending, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Appalled by human excess, Doe punishes each of his victims with a death he believes is congruent with his sins¬ómoral relativity is the rule of the game. More significantly, Doe acts on behalf of no one; there¬ís no mafia or mob behind his killings, and he is not a greedy mercenary doing it for money. A fanatic, he’s scarily a vigilante on a mission for God. Indeed, while captured, Doe is shocked and offended when Mills accuses him of killing innocent people: “Only in a world this shitty, you could say those people are innocent and say it with a straight face.”

Doe says he turns the sins against the sinners. Lust: a prostitute vaginally penetrated with a knife harnessed to her client. Greed: a lawyer carving out a pound of flesh from his own body. Pride: a woman’s nose is cut off and her choice is kill herself with an overdose or call for help. Gluttony: the opening murder, an obese man is forced at gunpoint to eat until he hemorrhages. Sloth: a pederast drug deal named Victor is paralyzed and kept alive for a year, while wasting away.

The various, ambiguous links between Mills and Doe become more obvious as the story goes along. For starters, Mills the cop is also disgusted with the perpetrators of the law and the nature of their crimes. Witness his reaction when he interviews a pimp, “Did you enjoy what you did “No,” the pimp says, “But that’s life, isn’t it”

The two cops propagate different philosophies and ways of life. Somerset, on the verge of retirement at the end of the week, notes: “I don’t think I can continue to live in a place that embraces, or nurtures, apathy as a virtue. Apathy is a solution. It’s easier to lose yourself in drugs than cope with life.”

“Seven” shows respect for intellect: It’s a movie in which ultimately words are more powerful than images. Scripter Walker makes a number of explicit literary references, such as to Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” (Inferno and Purgatory), Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales,” Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”

Arthur Max’s production design and Darius Khondji’s gloomy cinematography create a relentless atmosphere of dread. The rain-drenched New York stands for any big city, representing the mean streets of classic film noir. Until the last scene, every exterior scene is overcast, and it seems to be raining all the time. The film is set in a milieu where people live with much care about the quality of their lives. It¬ís a society in which moral decay is prevalent, one in which the seven deadly sins are commonplace.

The shabby dreariness is also reflected in the interiors too. Curtains are closed and torches are the only sources of light when the cops enter into Doe’s cluttered and dusty rooms, which are dominated by a red cross and filled with photos, clippings, receipts, bibles, and numerous notebooks. Mills’ apartment is not much nicer: Situated next to a railway line, it shakes whenever a train passes by.

The final two sins further link cop and killer. After giving himself up, Doe claims there are two more bodies to retrieve, but he will unveil them only if the cops take him to a secretive location. As the trio drives in the desert, the sky is blue for the first time, and the sun is shining, but it’s a false promise for an upbeat ending.

In another off-screen murder, Doe has killed Mills¬í pregnant wife Tracy, after which he severs her head and puts it in a box to be delivered to the meeting point. His motivation for killing as he says is: “I envied your normal life, it seems envy is my sin.¬î Doe claims that Tracy begged for the life of her unborn child and now Doe hopes to become the seventh victim by incurring Mills’ wrath. ¬ìIf you kill him, he’ll win,” Somerset warns his younger peer. But, alas, it¬ís too late. Unaware his wife was bearing a child and unable to control his rage, Mills falls into Doe’s pre-calculated trap. Before he does, though, there is a single-frame flash of Tracy’s face, as if encouraging him to pull the trigger.

The cop, society’s guardian of order, thus becomes a primal victim and a haunted prisoner himself: In the final shot, Mills is seen sitting in the back of the police car, with the wire grille foreshadowing his face, mirroring the spot where killer Doe had sat earlier.

Spoiler Alert

The studio wasn’t thrilled with the “head in a box” ending, but Pitt and Freeman refused to promote the film if it got changed, and so it stayed.


Domestic Box-Office (adjusted for inflation): about $200 million