VOD film review: Seven (1995)
Ivan Radford | On 14, Oct 2015
Director: David Fincher
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow
Watch Se7en online in the UK: Netflix UK / Amazon Prime / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play
“Ernest Hemingway once wrote: The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.”
That’s the voice of Morgan Freeman, the most reassuring sound in the world, at the start of David Fincher’s Se7en. The crime thriller was only the director’s second movie, but over 20 years later, it just might be his best – or, at the very least, the darkest.
The film’s premise is grippingly simple – and deliciously bleak – as it sees two cops attempting to track down a serial killer, who is slowly bumping off victims in the manner of the Seven Deadly Sins. A disturbing venture in humanity’s darker side, shot through with religious fanaticism and the same pre-Millennial dread that erupted in Fight Club, it’s a portrait of end-of-world portent, painted in gruesome blood and guts.
It’s the kind of scenario that sounds like your typical Scandi noir these days – an ITV series, Messiah, came shortly after, with a similar concept – but that underestimates just how nasty, just how sinister, just how downright shadowy Fincher’s film really is. Fresh off his muddled (but underrated) debut, Alien 3, this was the film that saw the director establish the total control that would come to be his fastidious signature: everything in the production feels on the brink of civilisation, from the intense humming and buzzes of the lights in the police station to the dust-filled crime scenes, barely visible until shot through with beams of light from police torches. Corruption is inescapable, seeping into the very walls of the crumbling city buildings.
It’s no wonder, then, that Detective Somerset (Freeman) warns Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) not to take this case – because he’s seen it all before, and knows it can only end badly. Freeman’s performance is surely his greatest, silently stalking the New York Library halls to research Dante’s Inferno, quietly observing each new, grisly corpse, calmly using a metronome to drown out the noise of a decayed civilisation. This is a place where it rains every day – and, just to add to the apocalyptic mood, that rain never stops.
Detective Mills couldn’t be more different. Played with intense, youthful energy by Brad Pitt, he’s brash, quick to anger, confident to the point of arrogance.
Se7en’s strength is not its criminology or detective work, but the fact that it’s a character study of those two men. If there were any doubt about its intentions, the movie makes that clear by the fact that the killer turns himself in long before the finale. And even that deliberate act only reinforces the sense of inevitability about the whole thing: the film isn’t your typical modern noir, dictated by conventions, but a story that is steadily steered in one direction by forces we’re not quite used to.
The suspension, and shocks, come from the way in which these two polar opposites react to that inevitability. Somerset wears a hat to shield himself from the eternal downpour. Mills swaggers about while his hair gets drenched. But it’s not that Somerset cares more: it’s actually because he cares less. Years of this hell have worn the man down to little more than a suit with legs – when we see Somerset visit Mills’ apartment, and even make a joke about their vibrating home, which judders and quakes with each passing train, the sight of him laughing and smiling is perhaps the most surprising thing in the whole two hours. As he gets to know Mills’ wife (played with sincerity by Gwyneth Paltrow), we can see the humanity he’s buried deep inside slowly begin to peek out of his shell.
But Somerset’s outward resignation towards the crime around him becomes the overwhelmingly correct way to respond to what they’re dealing with: while his visit to the library (accompanied by Air on a G String) is a cultured, peaceful haven from the horrors elsewhere, he can only get to that point by breaking the law himself to find out what books the suspected killer took out himself.
By the time we get to the end, we begin to realise that even this is part of the murderer’s plan: a breadcrumb that was deliberately planted to lure the police. The methodology of each homicide, recounted by both Mills and Somerset, as they pick through human leftovers, repeatedly reminds us that the killer has been meticulously, patiently plotting and executing every one, not just days or weeks, but even years in advance.
It’s the combination of Mills’ furious attitude and the chilling determination of their prey (a casting decision so perfect that even now, it seems a shame to spoil it) that ultimately breaks through Somerset’s wall of apathy – where a lesser film might take us to the heart of darkness through the younger, more relatable character, Fincher’s journey uses the weary veteran to steer us the edge of a cliff and gaze into the moral abyss.
Every sequence leading up to the killer’s capture is carefully shot, framed and edited for maximum tension – one hallway chase is nailbitingly oppressive to watch – always hinting at where we’re headed but never letting us get ahead of that destination.
Mills can happily write off the killer as being a nutcracker, but Somerset can see the logic behind the madness – and spies the finale coming before his junior counterpart can. By then, though, it’s too late: this a thriller that spends two hours building up an unrelenting atmosphere of total hopelessness – and doesn’t let up once. By the time Morgan Freeman’s voice returns to quote Ernest Hemingway, any wry humour that opened the movie has long since dissipated, as the world’s most reassuring sound, for once, rings entirely hollow. To do that to Morgan Freeman’s voice is a cardinal sin in itself. There is no dark irony here: just darkness.
Seven is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription. It is also available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.