Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What's in the Box?

Film: Se7en
Format: DVD from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player.

Se7en might be the film that really turned me into a film fan. I remember seeing it for the first time absolutely perfectly. It was a film I wanted to see based on seeing the trailer, and I was lamenting the fact that Sue wouldn’t go with me because it’s not the sort of film she typically likes. I mentioned this to a guy I worked with, and he was in the same situation. As it turned out, Sue was gone one weekend, and his girlfriend was out of town at the same time, so we went.

I’d been to plenty of movies before this, of course. I’d seen movies in the theater and seen movies that I had truly enjoyed and that had moved me emotionally. Se7en, though, was the first time I noticed more than just the story and the characters. It was the first time I watched something and started to see the environment that the film operated in. I noticed the lighting, and what the lighting seemed to mean for particular scenes. It was, in a manner of speaking, the first time I really started to watch something as a critic.

Like many a great film, the elevator pitch for Se7en is a single sentence: two cops try to stop a killer who kills his victims based on the seven deadly sins. And that’s it. Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is a week away from retirement, a sort of police film cliché. His replacement is Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), who shows up a week before Somerset’s retirement to get a feel for the city and the job. On their first full day together, they are called to a potential crime scene where the victim is an immensely obese man who has been killed by forcing him to eat himself to death.

The next day, a prominent criminal attorney is found dead in his office, the killer having bound him and forced him to, Shylock-style, to cut a pound of his own flesh from his body. The word “greed” is written on the floor in the lawyer’s blood. When Somerset discovers that the obese man was force fed pieces of plastic, he returns to the scene of the crime and discovers the word “gluttony” written in grease behind the fridge. Because there are five more deadly sins, we as the audience strap ourselves in for five more bizarre and terrible deaths, each related to its particular sin. It also soon becomes evident that not only are the victims of the crimes killed according to a deadly sin, but each victim is chosen specifically as a person who exemplifies the sin in question.

Along the way, we learn a little big about their personal lives. We learn that Mills is married to Tracey (Gwyneth Paltrow) and that Somerset once had a very serious relationship that ended. We also learn in a conversation betweey Tracey and Somerset that she is pregnant and isn’t sure she wants her husband to know. She hates the fact that his job has brought them to the city (presumably New York) and isn’t sure she wants to bring a child into that world. We also spend some time with their police captain (R. Lee Ermey), who plays R. Lee Ermey better than anyone else.

One of the more fascinating things about this film is that we don’t meet up with the bad guy, the killer, until halfway through the film. Even then, he’s little more than a figure in an overcoat, a shadowy shape in our nightmares. It’s not until the tail end of the film that John Doe (Kevin Spacey) becomes an actual character in this drama instead of a boogeyman.

What gripped me about this film initially is the use of light and shadow. While this is not at all a film noir, there are nods to it, whether intentional or accidental. The use of shadow is tremendous throughout, with dark places on the film somehow darker than they are in other films. A number of scenes are lit by flashlights and dim light bulbs, and frequently, there is a desire to get some more light on the scene. However, this is part of the ambience of the film—just as we the audience are kept in the dark throughout, so too are Mills and Somerset. It’s not until the end, with the final confrontation between the two detectives and John Doe that we even get a day where it is not pouring down rain. At the end, when Doe’s entire plan is revealed to the world, the scenes are shot in full, bright sunlight.

David Fincher is a smart filmmaker, and nowhere is that more evident than in this film. Fincher goes against the philosophy that showing everything to the audience is the way to go. Instead, we’re given short glimpses, or partial looks at things and left to imagine the carnage ourselves. We never really see the greed murder scene, for instance, but only get a couple of black-and-white photographs. For the lust murder, we see the victim’s leg on a bed, the killer’s unwilling accomplice, and a photograph of the device used. It’s left to us to construct precisely what happened, and what we construct is far more brutal and terrible than it would be if we were shown the actual end result of the murder.

This more than anything makes this a smart film. It’s the sort of film that more cerebral filmgoers will find disturbing because it does play with the darker recesses of our imaginations. It’s helped by the fact that the killings are cruel, disturbing, and inventive. It’s one of Kevin Spacey’s best performances, and my personal favorite of Morgan Freeman’s. If a couple of line reads are clunky, so be it. The ending has been parodied over and over, and so doesn’t read as well as it did when the film was made, but that’s hardly the film’s fault.

It's worth noting as well that Se7en has one of the most unsettling and disturbing opening credit sequences ever filmed. That sounds crazy, but it's true. Once the credits role, you know you're in for something. These have been duplicated b other films, so the effect has lessened, but in 1995, those credits were unlike anything at the start of a film ever.

The mark of a truly great film is how well it holds up year after year. I first saw Se7en 17 years ago and watched it again tonight. It’s lost nothing since it was first released. It’s just as gripping, just as brutal, and just as unsettling as it was then.

Why to watch Se7en: It’s the most disturbing film you’ll ever want to watch repeatedly.
Why not to watch: It’s disturbing in that old school way where your imagination takes over instead of relying on what you see.


  1. Like you, I saw this in theaters, but I still need to see it again in order to blog about it.

    I was 16 years old (might've been 15, actually, depending on when in 95 we saw it) when I saw this in theaters with my friend Beth - no parents, no guardians, nothing. I gotta say, that theater had no business letting us in to see that movie. I had no idea what was going on with the Lust crime, but it still scared the bejesus out of me.

    Great review, and very much my memory of what the film was all about.

    At first, it feels like the movie is about Brad Pitt's character, but I think it's much more about Morgan Freeman's character.

  2. Jesus... seventeen years. I B Olde.

    Happily, I agree with your assessment in this review-- excellent use of light and shadow. David Fincher cut his teeth on that turd of an Alien film, "Alien 3"; some of that yin/yang aesthetic sensibility is visible in "Se7en."

  3. Criminy...I was 27 when I saw this in the summer of 1995. I feel old as well. This is not a film you will regret seeing a second time (or a third, or fourth...).

    For me, Se7en is all about the using of lighting. It was literally the first time I bothered to notice something like that beyond it being just a passing thing. It was the first time it was actually important enough to me that it affected my opinion of the film.

  4. I'll save you further discomfort by not revealing how old I was in 1995 (rest assured I certainly didn't see this in the cinema) yet this is a film I dearly wish I had. And the line "This isn't even my desk" remains one of my favourites from any film to this day.

    1. Yes! I wanted to think of a way to work that line into this, because that's one of my favorite lines, too! I love the line itself, and I love the way R. Lee Ermey says it and just throws the phone back down.

  5. Interesting. Generally speaking, if I am noticing the filmmaking during the film that's a bad sign for me because it means the filmmaking is subpar. If it's good I shouldn't notice it because it should all blend seemlessly together. It's only after a film is done that I will think back on how good the cinematography was in a particular scene (for instance).

    I saw this film back when it came to video, and I've never had the desire to see it again. I didn't dislike it, but I didn't love it, either. I saw the ending coming (it copied the Coens' Barton Fink), so it didn't hold any surprises for me. Actually, the biggest surprise was the "hey, that's Kevin Spacey" moment. I read that he asked to have his name removed from the opening credits because people would know, by process of elimination, that he would be playing the bad guy if his name was there.

    1. We'll agree to disagree on this one. I think it's evidence that Fincher is one of the best directors working.