“I’m setting the example. And what I’ve done is going to be puzzled over, and studied, and followed forever.” — John Doe
Twenty years isn’t quite forever. Not yet. But two decades after being released in theaters on Sept. 22, 1995, Seven (or Se7en, which kind of started the annoying trend of substituting letters with numbers in film titles, something that baffles Derek Zoolander) still holds up as the standard for modern serial killer films with a knockout blow of an ending that continues to resonate through pop culture.
Unfortunately, Seven also inspired a bunch of copycat films portraying grandiose serial killers and the bitter detectives or agents trying to bring them down, set in a bleak, grisly world nearly drowning in mid-90s goth color palette. Two that immediately come to mind for me are The Bone Collector (1999) and Taking Lives (2004). (Interestingly, Angelina Jolie is in both of those, which maybe says something about what my memory chooses to hold onto.) Morgan Freeman even went from Seven to star in some of them, such as Kiss the Girls (1997) and Along Came a Spider (2001).
Director David Fincher has made eight films since Seven, most of which — including Fight Club, The Social Network and Gone Girl — have been very good, if not outstanding. (I think The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is really good too, but seems forgettable because the sequels weren’t developed.) But Seven is still arguably his best effort, one all of his subsequent movies are measured against.
To his credit, Fincher has shown that he has many more tricks in his bag during his career. Even when he made another serial killer film, Zodiac, the tone and scope of the film were far different, as was the source material, based on real events. For many fans (I include myself here), Fincher’s films are must-see events. Seven is why.
I presume what most remember about this movie are the meticulous nature of the murders and the vision associated with basing them on the seven deadly sins. That’s what I recalled most easily, in addition to — spoiler alert for a 20-year-old movie — the surprise cameo appearance by Kevin Spacey, whose film career had just broken out, as the killer John Doe. Would Fincher and New Line Cinema have been able to keep that secret these days when seemingly everything is revealed online and through social media? Maybe. The big cameo in Interstellar (another spoiler alert — Matt Damon) stayed relatively hidden, so it’s still capable of being done.
What surprised me as I watched Seven again — for the first time in I don’t know how many years, but I’ll bet it’s at least 10 — was how compelling Freeman’s character, Detective William Somerset, is throughout the film, how utterly compelling he is. In most stories, a character goes through an arc, one in which he or she experiences some sort of change.
I’m not sure Somerset really changes that much as the story progresses, other than to acknowledge the more optimistic viewpoint of his new partner, David Mills (played by Brad Pitt). Mills and his wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), might soften Somerset a bit. Yet it could also be the intellectual challenge of trying to thwart Doe before he completes his seven killings that shake Somerset out of his jaded apathy and get him to care about something again. Of course, those cares are eventually crushed, as with everyone else associated with the case.
In the hands of another actor and director, Somerset could have been an “I’m too old for this shit” cliché, passing bitter wisdom along to his newbie partner, pulled in for one last case that reminds him of why he became a cop in the first place. But Freeman gives him so much more depth than that. (Credit surely goes to Fincher and writer Andrew Kevin Walker, as well.) Yes, Somerset is too old for this shit. He’s set to retire and this case opens during his final week (seven days, in case you thought that title only applied to the deadly sins). He tries to pass this case off, knowing it’s going to take longer to solve because the crimes are complex and the killer is clearly extremely smart.
Yet whether Somerset wants to admit it or not, he’s also intrigued by this new adversary. The fact that Doe is on a similar intellectual plain takes hold of his curiosity and won’t let go. Trying to get in the killer’s head inspires the detective, sending him off to the library on an all-night binge of dark, classic literature and poetry. (Somerset probably would have gone to the library anyway, but it’s for a purpose this time, not to escape a city and world he can no longer tolerate or understand.) Sure, Somerset wants to defeat Doe and catch him before he kills again. But he’s forced to raise his game to do so, and that wakes him up.
However, something else also appeals to Somerset’s humanity, which is his partner’s wife. Tracy Mills is the true innocent of Seven, forced to move to the movie’s unnamed city (which is probably New York, but I always assumed was Philadelphia) and support her husband’s career ambitions. But the city just isn’t for her. People keep to themselves, minding their own business because everything around them is awful and it’s easier to just keep their heads down and try to move forward. There’s no joy, there’s no light. (There’s almost literally no light, as the city always seems to be bogged down by rain and gloom.)
But Tracy senses a gentler soul in Somerset. Despite hearing about what a grouch and hardass he is from David, she reaches out because she wants to meet someone else, see another person besides her husband. Maybe Tracy wants to know how Somerset has managed to survive in the city, in his job, for so many years and hopes to glean some sort of understanding from him, some way to help this world make sense. In one of the movie’s best scenes (among so many), she invites Somerset to breakfast and confides a secret she’s not even willing to share with David yet because she’s not sure how to deal with it herself.
Of course, there’s no room for the innocent in Seven. It’s surely not a coincidence that what sets Doe off with a rant (“Innocent? Is that supposed to be funny?”) and virtual manifesto late in the film is Mills’ assertion that the murder victims were innocent people. Yet the killer is so self-centered, so consumed with his supposed purpose that he doesn’t realize his final victim was truly innocent and undeserving of what happened. Doe uses Tracy as a weapon, as the final blow to break Mills and force him to do his bidding, to complete the masterpiece that he’s created in his mind.
That leads to what makes Seven so enduring, one that transcends other films of its genre. The ending is legitimately shocking. Walker and Fincher couldn’t possibly have gone there, right? Oh, yeah — they did. And the twist isn’t contrived or phony at all; it’s completely consistent with the rest of the movie and hopeless world it depicts.
There’s no cop-out. This is a true payoff. As sick as it might sound to say there’s any joy in the final moments, there is some pleasure to be derived from the fact that Walker and Fincher got away with this (though of course there was studio resistance), that they saw the story through to its natural resolution. The bad guy wins, completely and absolutely, though at great personal cost. And the good guys are left in ruins. It’s so bold, it’s so daring. It’s magnificent.
Everyone involved with Seven has never been better. OK, that’s not entirely true. Pitt has had better performances. But he knew a good thing when he saw it, and has smartly worked with Fincher again. This movie arguably pushed Pitt to greater career heights. And as film fans, Seven was the breakout film for one of the best directors currently working today. If you haven’t watched Seven for a few years — or especially if you haven’t seen it before — it’s worth your revisiting. It might be even better than you remember, and you might be surprised by how much there is to admire here.