Review by Chiranjit Goswami
Posted on 20 October 2005
Source New Line DVD
Features: 31 Days of Horror
In a miserable metropolitan area, local officials discover a series of vicious murders involving severe torture and mutilation. The case is assigned to Detective William Somerset, a somber senior officer who is seven days away from retiring and is reconciled to count down each passing beat as he prepares to escape the surrounding urban chaos. Somerset’s partner on the case is Detective David Mills, a brash young cop who has just arrived in the city with his wife Tracy. Upon further investigation of the fatalities, the police suspect a serial killer is starting a string of seven murders upon determining each target to be guilty of committing one of the seven deadly sins. The increasingly disturbing serial sermons are conducted so that each casualty is destroyed in a manner that fittingly exposes their frailty. As each day passes and more victims are found, the detectives may be drawing closer to a suspect, but their labors feel futile, especially when the dreadful magnitude of the murder’s design is finally revealed.
Released in 1995 to a mild amount of controversy, David Fincher’s Seven is very much a reflection of its times shrouded in what my film professor termed a “trendy grunge pessimism.” After the turbulent events of the past half-century, the 90s allowed us to ponder our history as the end of a millennium approached, radiating concern over the results of our rapid alterations within the past century. At the time of Seven’s development, production, and release, America had engaged in Middle-Eastern military conflicts, endured an economic recession, and struggled with the ensuing swell of violent crime that had seemingly become more prominent in urban areas. Given these events, whether warranted or not, cynicism and disenchantment become more pronounced within the collective conscience. These general attitudes displayed themselves within various facets of pop-culture, including mainstream music (garage-bands, industrial-rock, and gangster rap) and popular television (Seinfeld and The X-Files). Thus, the dark and confined atmosphere within Seven is another direct expression of the prevailing sense of alienation and disillusionment at the time the film was created. Fincher has always admitted that he is creating pop-art, readily embracing his detractor’s accusations that Seven is a MTV-style movie.
Seven may resemble a crime-thriller, but Fincher saturates the film with neo-noir fatalism. Using his characteristic low-key lighting and a limited color scheme of striking blacks and rusty browns, Fincher’s distinctively dark visual style creates a dismal mood in accordance with the grim tone of Seven’s material. The emphasis of urban decay as a backdrop parallels the slow erosion of morality and Fincher avoids the intimacy provided by close-ups in favor of medium-shots that maintain a safe detached distance from the characters and events. Aided by Howard Shore’s pulsing mechanic score and the persistent, amplified, dissonance of urban noise that rumbles and shrieks through the film, Seven is smothered with a cold menacing chaos. To further establish a dreary atmosphere, Fincher soaks Seven in an unyielding downpour. Accompanied by a frightening thunder, the shower is so forceful one wonders if it signals a potential cleansing flood intended to wash away all traces of man’s depravity, or simply just God weeping in sorrow at the state of the world. Fincher then constricts his characters — particularly Mills — within his compositions, having them trapped within narrow doorways, imprisoned in rigid window frames, and squeezed into ominous corridors, suggesting they are restricted to their discouraging circumstances and prevented from escaping a horrible destiny. Meanwhile, a friction is present when his characters occupy the same frame. Presumably uncomfortable with their proximity to one another, the strain conveys an aversion to human connection frequently associated to living in cities. The uncertainty of darkness inspires enough unease on its own, but when integrated with drab exteriors and demoralizing interiors, the experience is oppressive, diminishing the authority of both the characters and viewers.
Fincher enhances the eerie mood by selecting a constant low angle for a significant portion of Seven. Most notably applied during the survey of the Gluttony murder, the angle possibly imitates a child’s fearful stare and feels cautious within the surrounding turmoil, adding a certain measure of anxiety and gravity during the opening moments. This perspective will be exaggerated when the SWAT team storms an apartment and will reappear towards the conclusion of the film. However, Fincher occasionally balances the viewpoint by using a high angle to reveal the enormity of the crime scenes, such as the Greed and Pride murders, peering down at the sight from a more divine and disapproving standpoint.
Understandably, Seven has a reputation of being overly gruesome, but in actuality it contains very few graphic images. Actually, for a film often catalogued as horror, Seven contains hardly any acts of violence and relatively little gore, instead having most of its brutality either implied or obscured. Fincher’s film takes great care in avoiding conventional horror designs, building suspense and delivering its most terrifying moment not from a sadistic fatality, but when a carcass shows signs of life. Seven’s terror is a function of its atmosphere and structure. The few brief scenes that choose to dwell upon disturbing images of damaged bodies, particularly the Gluttony and Sloth murders, become more memorable due to their scarcity. Seven draws attention to the vulnerability of the human body by lingering upon corpses, but also makes a concerted effort to impart just enough details about the method of murder that the viewer may visualize the brutality of acts not shown. Hence, it’s often the implications of Seven’s images that are truly horrific for the audience, as they continue to reveal the human capacity to harm.
Seven actively develops a religious theme throughout its narrative. Not only are the murders patterned after the seven deadly sins, but the killer schedules his actions over the seven days of creation, and his motivations are based upon theology. Somerset explains that the killer is “preaching to us,” whereby the murders function as the killer’s “sermons” to society. Once inside the killer’s lair, we pass by an illuminated cross which overlooks his bed. Later, the killer himself explains to the officers that “I did not choose - I was chosen” and that each act committed is meant “to turn each sin against the sinner.”. In fact, the killer believes that he is performing “God’s good work.”.
Other than a mood of alienation and vulnerability, the other unique trait of the ’90s that Seven adopts is the notion of a serial killing. The decade witnessed a number of famous serial killers materialize, including Jeffrey Dahmer, Paul Bernardo, and Joel Rifkin. The publicity these criminals generated highlighted pop-culture’s increased fascination with serial killers, exemplified in movies such as Silence of the Lambs and musicians such as Marilyn Manson.
However, what makes Seven’s serial killer so disturbing is that Jonathan Doe does not conform to the typical conception of cinematic serial killers. Unlike the original suspect, Victor, Doe seemingly does not suffer from mentally illness, did not receive a strict upbringing within an orthodox religion, and does not appear to achieve sexual gratification from his crimes. Actually, Doe exhibits traits that modern society holds in high regard, as the police captain notes, “he’s independently wealthy [and] well educated.” His motivations for his crimes are sociological rather than purely personal. Even more troubling is that Doe is extremely rational and cunning for someone who is considered “totally insane” because “he’s John Doe by choice.”
The killer’s choice to adopt “John Doe” as his own name serves multiple purposes. Clearly he perceives himself to be representing the interests of the common man. The name itself stresses his invisibility, and fittingly he remains faceless to the viewer until he chooses to surrender. Lost in the urban environment, he becomes just another generic John Doe, unworthy of our attention. Part of what makes Doe so frightening is that he is not some alien, dehumanized, demented devil such as Leatherface or Michael Myers, but very much an ordinary person. Somerset mentions that our preconceptions require the killer to be “Satan himself” in order for us to be satisfied, but we’ll always be disappointed by the fact that “he’s not the devil, he’s just a man.” Embodied by Kevin Spacey, Doe is fairly bland, his behavior rather asexual, his personality can hardly be called charismatic, and he would probably be ignored amongst a crowd.
However, Doe also realizes his anonymity allows him protection. Doe strips away his fingerprints using a razor blade to escape detection, thereby erasing his identity. Thus, Doe’s invisibility allows him to move through society with impunity since his actions carry no personal consequences. Oddly, by further embracing his insignificance, Doe has manipulated society’s lack of concern and reaction in order to deliver his lesson. Whether factual or not, it has been noted that serial killers are a modern occurrence, created by the ills and apathy of society. One of the aspects that make serial killing so frightening is that their many vile actions go unnoticed until we realize the astonishing destruction they cause. What then becomes unsettling in retrospect is not merely the killer’s cruelty, but reluctance to prevent such malice and our lack of initial concern. Hence, the horror of Seven is also a result of the indifference and disconnection that seems so inherent to everyday life we mistakenly assume they are necessary for survival.
Perhaps more traumatic is that Doe’s targets are not exactly the innocent murder victims that comfort our morality. While an officer comments upon the deserving nature of the torture one victim received, a doctor later notes that his patient still “has Hell to look forward to.” Though physically abused and threatened, the sinners are never actually slaughtered by the serial killer. Instead, Doe fashions a situation whereby each sinner meets their doom due to the depth of their own weakness. While certainly not deserving of their plight, each victim is a sufficient representation of their sin and obviously not immaculate. The disturbing aspect of screen-writer Andrew Kevin Walker’s concept is that viewers can simultaneously identify with the weakness of the victims, but also relate to the disdain that Doe has for each sinner based upon our own stereotypical conceptions.
What separates Seven from the many mediocre copycats it has influenced in the decade since its release, is that it genuinely values the human characteristic of intelligence, or at least our tendency to seek out knowledge and understanding of the world around us. However, it makes no apologies for punishing those who willfully choose to remain ignorant and unaware. Throughout the film, constant references are made to classic literature, as Somerset begins to understand Doe through their mutual knowledge of classic literary works such as Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Dante’s Inferno. Seven is not positioning itself among these works, but reminding us that the exploration of sin is a natural human inclination we have struggled with throughout history.
The appreciation of knowledge is also evident while we watch characters work. Two notable sequences allow us to comprehend how the approach to literature separates the three main personalities within Seven. The first is Kyle Cooper’s brilliant title sequence, which provides us with our first glimpse of John Doe as he toils in his lair. Doe passes the time by shaving off his fingertips, writing down what is later described as his “mind poured out on paper,”, developing photographs, blackening out text or images, and binding his numerous books. The title sequence ends with an inverted shot of tweezers delicately removing the word “God”, while we sweep past the shelves of books as Trent Reznor screams “You get me closer to God!” Thus, the image and audio explain what drives Doe into his madness. These vile acts Doe commits are a perverse method of attaining spiritual enlightenment.
The sequence shows John Doe working to bind one of his many diaries of thoughts. As the final tracking shot shows, he has crafted quite a collection, as Somerset later exclaims “there are close to two thousand notebooks on these shelves.”. Not only has Doe hand-crafted each notebook, but he also lines his apartment with photographs. Doe’s efforts show him to be cultured, intelligent, tedious, and patient, with a deep sense of artistic expression he is willing to suffer for. His struggle to recreate the seven deadly sins through murders can thus be seen as his conception of a religious masterpiece, a piece of grotesque performance art which cannot be appreciated without “seeing the complete act,”, and the opening sequence demonstrates his talent, devotion, and depravity.
Subsequently, we witness Somerset diligently working in the library attempting to gain an understanding of Doe’s crimes. Whereas Doe may be Seven’s twisted artist, Somerset is the film’s embodiment of wisdom. Somerset’s “big brain” immediately detects Doe’s intensions to create a sermon and he accurately senses the significance of sin in the events. Doe and Somerset share a mutual view of society, not merely as a fertile place for sin to flourish, but also a place where sin is tolerated — a place that “nurtures apathy as if it’s a virtue.”. Hence, when confronted by Doe’s tactics, Somerset searches for a meaning behind the killer’s actions.
A comparison between the sequences assigned to Somerset and Doe reveals their similarities and differences. Obviously, based upon Fincher’s focus on pages of writing and text, both share an admiration for literature and culture, a trait Somerset astutely exploits by using the library system to identify Doe. Their study allows them to attain a mutual awareness of the moral inequity of their surrounding environment. However, Cooper’s title sequence is disjointed and jarring as viewers are inundated with confusing images and the aggressive pounding of industrial rock. Using extreme close-ups, double-exposures, off-center compositions, severe angles, scratched images, and brisk editing Cooper creates anxiety as the audience struggles to grasp his visuals. In contrast to Doe’s sequence, Somerset’s montage is elegant and gentle, permitting the audience to be swept up delicate imagery and the soothing melodies of Bach. Fincher applies longer shots, seamless dissolves, symmetrical compositions, calm tracking shots, attractive images, and smooth editing to create a moment of tranquility using gorgeous visuals.
Both montages feature images of hands engaged in work, as we watch as Doe destroys and manipulates text, reconstructing the meaning to suit his own purposes and reinforce his own interpretations, while Somerset researches and transcribes literature, absorbing the meaning to gain greater understanding and knowledge of the area he studies. Though both Somerset and Doe share a similar perception of their surrounding environment, they react differently to the cruelty and complacency. Perhaps due to his status as a minority within society and his inability to find success in his career despite his intelligence (it’s noted that many of his cases remain unsolved), Somerset feels he is unable to affect the world around him and therefore he is reconciled to remain an observer as basic decency continues to crumble. Conversely, possibly due to his status as a wealthy Caucasian and the success of his schemes, John Doe believes he is capable of inhibiting the infestation of sin by altering society’s perceptions of the impulses we choose to indulge, and genuinely relishes his role as a destructive force. Somerset is dismayed and saddened by the grip sin holds over humanity, while Doe has nothing but contempt and scorn for those who cling to their vices.
Meanwhile, though he shares the same montage as Somerset, Mills’ methods diverge greatly from those of Somerset or Doe. Though Mills and Somerset are both engaged in the same venture, their tactics are decidedly different. While Somerset explores potential implications by attempting to further his knowledge, pondering the significance of distinct works of literature regarding sin, Mills simply stares at evidence of the crimes, surveying them for possible clues, merely glancing at photos and reports searching for specific signals. The simplicity of Mills’ approach is evident as we bounce between common visuals, including close-ups of Mills’ face and point-of-view shots of the documents he inspects. The visuals are far more complex for Somerset, as Fincher immerses Somerset’s face in the reading materials via dissolves as we rotate around the detective. Fincher then inserts an overhead shot of Mills stretching, inverting the young cop’s face in the frame, conveying how unsuccessful his techniques are. Somerset is able to concentrate on his research for a lengthy period, finally dropping off his results on Mills’ desk. Meanwhile, confined through a window frame, we notice Mills has become bored enough to quit and now watches a basketball game on television.
Seven constantly points to the intrinsic difference between Somerset’s sophisticated stance and Mills’ primitive attitude. It is important to realize that, despite the fact that Brad Pitt is a star and the audience expects to identify with him, Seven is critical of Mills. When working together, Fincher constantly undermines Pitt’s public persona, and in Seven he plays with the perception of Pitt being an arrogant and idiotic Hollywood star. Somerset is a quiet man who observes the smallest details; he is reserved, soft-spoken, speaking only to express something of value. In contrast, Mills is carelessly noisy with little concentration on the task at hand; he is volatile, crass, and chatters incessantly. When Somerset asks Mills to “divorce [himself] from emotion,” Mills retorts that he “feed[s] off his emotions.” Later, after having his arm broken by Doe, Mills ignores Somerset’s advice and busts down Doe’s door in rage, compromising the entire investigation, only to cover-up his tactics using bribery. As they travel to a suspect’s apartment, Somerset confesses that he has never fired his gun before Mills admits he has taken a life. When reviewing evidence at Mills’ home, Somerset drinks wine as Mills sips his beer. Mills is depicted as immature and impatient, always distracted and continually making tactless jokes and inappropriate sexual innuendoes, even mimicking sodomy when frustrated while examining the Greed crime scene. Somerset encourages Mills to gain knowledge regarding sin, but his attempt is in vain. Hence, Mills is separated from Somerset and Doe because he is reluctant and unable to absorb knowledge, even exclaiming “Fuckin’ Dante!” before trying to cheat using Cliff’s Notes. Thus, Mills does not acquire an understanding of his surrounding environment and is doomed to suffer as a consequence.
Mills receives his sentence during Seven’s infamous conclusion, where Doe exploits Mills’ most base instincts, in effect punishing him for his willful ignorance. Frequently chastised as a gimmick, Seven’s denouement may deliver an appalling twist, but it serves as a fitting finale that avoids pleasing either the audience or the characters. It remains a conclusion that denies a satisfying blood-lust or a reassuring morality, since our antagonist recognizes his own guilt and asks to be sacrificed accordingly.
Seven relies upon our fascination with the original premise, our expectations based upon our previous experience with the crime drama genre, and our anticipation created from trying to piece together Doe’s complete design ourselves. When Doe surrenders to the police before any final hunt takes place - effectively ending our logical narrative - we suspect, and require, that he has some more elaborate spectacle planned, simply because we know the design requires two more victims. However, Seven also reprimands the viewer for their curiosity in crime and their innate need to witness the nasty spectacles of the thriller genre. It will gratify our curiosity, but we will not be left unscathed.
Within these final moments the misguided nature of Seven’s countless imitators becomes apparent, since these superficial derivatives never understand that Seven’s finale does not crown a winner, but instead suggests parity. Though Doe is satisfied by the results, he certainly is not allowed a superior position to any other character, even kneeling before he is vanquished. Indeed, it is clear that, despite his intelligence and regardless of his impression that society is ruled by vice, Doe mirrors Somerset’s own belief that he is “no different, no better” than any other human. Doe is not the raving lunatic Mills paints him to be, but sensibly considers himself to be a sinner equal to all his victims. Instead, Mills has the misconception that Doe is inferior. Meanwhile, Doe perceives their similarity, knowing his pleasure in killing parallels the enjoyment Mills would obtain from beating him to death. Doe recognizes that Mills will sin if he believes the outcomes of his actions are just. Fincher understands this as well, since he cages Mills and Doe behind bars as they provoke each other in the squad car. Thus, Fincher links them visually and then foreshadows their downfall by suggesting they are both trapped by their morality.
Seven’s conclusion obtains a great deal of its intensity from its divergent style and setting. The filmmakers choose to eliminate the oppressive urban climate in favor of expansive country fields. Fincher allows daytime light to replace the miserable darkness, and the steady beating of helicopter blades substitutes for the constant noise of city life. The few remaining similarities are embellished, as Fincher begins to include longer shots from greater distances in order to further isolate his characters, and the bleak barren landscape mirrors the foul rotting interiors found in the city. However, technology begins to clash as the power lines hinder police communication, signaling that modern society no longer holds the proceedings hostage. Devoid of modern pressures, characters can no longer hide behind excuses for the choices they make. Instead, Seven’s final moments reduce the film’s scale down to a single moral dilemma that one man must face. Under extreme emotional stress, Mills must make a basic decision of whether to follow his sinful instinct to take revenge, or to rationally detach himself from the horrific situation that Doe has shaped. It’s a circumstance we never expected where the outcome appears inevitable. As characters plead to God, we now understand the horrific audacity of Seven’s assembly of a conclusion unwilling to provide us relief. Seven’s offers a lesson that our knowledge and awareness will facilitate our survival within society, but must be accompanied by a sense of sorrow. Thus, the final horror Seven deals us is not only that sin is an endless component of human nature, but also that the act of sinning is inevitable.