Worth Fighting For: Why ‘Se7en’ Still Works

In 2015, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary, we looked at all the elements that make David Fincher’s ‘Se7en’ a classic.
Se7en Brad Pitt
New Line Cinema
By  · Published on September 22nd, 2015

This evaluation of David Fincher’s Se7en was written for its 20th anniversary, in 2015. But just like the film, the essay may forever hold up.

For two weekends in the Fall of 1995, Kevin Spacey was the surprise villain of two movies that invaded theaters and left bloody footprints on millions of psyches. The first was The Usual Suspects, a modest crime thriller where Spacey freely gives himself to police, believing fully that he’ll outsmart them in a game of cat and also-cat. The second was Se7en, a modest crime thriller where Spacey does almost the same thing, except this time, not wanting to be rude, he brings a box with a gift inside to the party.

It’s a little difficult to remember what these movies were like in their original context considering their longevity and the mythos of success we’ve placed on them. It’s as easy to believe that The Usual Suspects was a strident box office champion as it is to think of Se7en as the underappreciated cult favorite that emerged from obscurity, even though the opposite is true.

As for the latter – which premiered 20 years ago today – it’s because the moody dilapidation of David Fincher’s horrific tale of God-sanctioned murders feels like the kind of thing that couldn’t be appreciated by a broad audience. It has the dangerous sheen of a secret that you pass only to trusted friends, a slicker twist on video nasties that didn’t belong sharing marquee space with Empire Records and To Wong Foo Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar. How could something this aggressive be out there in the open where people’s mothers — a key 1995 Brad Pitt demographic — could accidentally wander in?

To the credit of audiences in the mid-’90s, Se7en was a genuine blockbuster, winning its opening box office weekend, scoring its budget back ten times over, landing at (what else) #7 for the highest-grossing movies of the year, and earning almost as much as that year’s Batman movie on a fraction of the budget.

That launch makes for a great start toward acing the test of time (although The Usual Suspects reminds us that slower burns survive just as well), but there are also a number of other reasons why Se7en is still powerful two decades later.

Natural Dialogue in a Stylized World

Injected in between the quizzical philosophy and introduction to religious literature, screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker crafted a large amount of detective dialogue that felt both like the familiar jousting of strong personalities and freshly specific to these characters. This aspect is imperative to its re-watchability because, not only is it entertaining, it speaks to the nature of the film’s focus: the relationship between Mills (Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman).

Their partnership – contentious, admirable, challenging, ultimately respectful, and strained – feels real, anchoring an already-sharp story about a methodical murderer with a fanatical theme to his crimes.

It also helps to indent the environment on our brains, forcing us to see the world through Somerset’s eyes. The cops discuss violence and gore with unceasing boredom, criminals dislike what they do but can’t escape their cycle, everyone owns their fate.

Ironically, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) and John Doe (Spacey) are our only windows into how unusual the place is. Without her (and without him explaining his disgust with everyday depravity), we solely see a dank, rainy city where every inhabitant is bizarrely comfortable with corruption and greasy pizza. While Somerset hates it all enough to run away from it, he still speaks the language of the street, and while Mills is naive, he seems desperate for the romance that big city bravery provides.

Flawless Structure

Like the blueprints to a perfect haunted house, Se7en’s raw density demands future viewings. It’s amazing how key puzzle pieces fit together in surprising ways – the biggest being the fingerprints of the Sloth victim spelling out “Help me” at the Greed crime scene. In most other mysteries, you’d see this in practice, leading simply to a dead end, a cold case victim, or another dead body without much connection to the thematic whole. Here, instead, you end up with a suspect who has a record and a strict religious upbringing. While we recognize what’s going on as a red herring (the movie can’t be that short), the fingerprints bring us to a victim with a similar profile to the killer. Or, at least, a profile that we foolish stereotype the killer with.

Plus, “Help me,” isn’t an arbitrary message of foreboding; Sloth really is still alive, waiting to be helped.

In another segment, Somerset engages his pessimism by discussing clues that only lead to more clues. It might be a slight aimed at the typical mystery, but it also reflects how strange every discovery comes about in Se7en. They find the Gluttony body, Somerset quits, and Mills gets a new assignment, which turns out to be the Greed body, which leads to the aforementioned Sloth trip, which stalls out everything until they show up on John Doe’s doorstep. The Lust and Pride victims seem like the bile icing on a shit cake, but they speed up the entire pace of the film (the movie ostensibly ends before sunset on the same day they discover the Pride victim). The pile of victims essentially doubles with only a brief time left in the story.

You’ll also notice that solutions to problems often come quickly (i.e. Mills and Somerset need a warrant, Mills kicks Doe’s door in, and the next scene features a vagrant who is was clearly paid to say they called in an anonymous tip and a uniform cop who couldn’t care either way). We’re given just enough information as we go along – and the nature of the crimes is so shocking – that we feel satisfied, and when procedural problems need a shortcut, Mills and Somerset come out looking clever. It’s win-win from a structural standpoint, and we don’t have to get bogged down in exposition.

What’s In The Box

It’s well known that there’s another version of the script that shows a fairly rote confrontation in an industrial district of the city where John Doe is holding Tracy hostage. There were other ideas – Mills’ dog’s head being in the box, Somerset shooting Doe, a showdown in a burning church that goes quickly into soap opera territory.

None of them would have worked. All of them would have felt either cheap or wholly alien to the rest of the narrative. There is only one ending to this story, one with a neat little bow on top of a head-filled box.

Praise be to Fincher and Pitt and anyone else who demanded that the perfect ending remains intact. Its impact is soul-punching, but it’s more than a strong tragedy. It’s a story that necessarily heads toward its rightful conclusion. Every element of the movie is set up so carefully (Mills’ temper, the need for an attention-seeking finish, the two last sins) that anything else would have been a cop-out.

Fortunately, we got the ending the story deserves, and it does the lion’s share of ensuring that we remember the dark hell out of this film. The finale is unforgettable, elevating an already strong film into immortal territory.

John Doe is Insane, But We Agree with Him

Hear me out on this.

It would have been easy to make Doe a stock crazy person with a tiny amount of screen time that belied the apotheosis he earns by being discussed and talked about for an hour and a half. The average cop movie would have seen him caught, tossed in that kidnapping/shootout plot, and called it a day.

Instead, we get a chance to hear from Doe’s own mouth his disgust with humanity and the crusade he’s launching against it. While we find him deplorable for all the atrocious acts he perpetrated, it’s also difficult not to agree with him on one major point. He isn’t the villain of the movie. Or, at least, he’s not the only villain. The city is the real enemy. A people who allow horrific acts to become shruggably commonplace is the real enemy.

The fact that this terrible environment acts as a breeding ground for evil creates a sympathetic link between us and Doe. Mills and Somerset are chasing symptoms, powerless as two men can be against the true sickness. Maybe we don’t wish as much ill will on the obese as Doe, and maybe we don’t want to view murder as a curative option, but most of his railing against the sins of the world doesn’t sound crazy at all. The world we’ve seen throughout the movie is fucked up, and while our intended actions would be different, we share Doe’s outrage.

Naturally, the movie itself is obsessed with the short distance between “heroes” and “villains.” Somerset even tells Mills (really, us) not to see things in black and white else we risk going blind. It’s a movie ultimately about how quickly we’re willing to throw away a system when justice becomes convenient on our own terms.

It launches that discussion long before that box gets delivered to the desert, too. Somerset is happy to spend cash under the table on an extralegal FBI search, and Mills is ready at every turn to create shortcuts for himself. Like other Fincher films, Se7en is gripping because it asks uncomfortable questions about personal morality. The ending is a reflection of how comfortable we were watching “the good guys” cut corners in order to catch the bad guy.

If apathy is an acceptable solution, what do you call insanity when it’s widespread?

Details and Twists that Aren’t Twists

Had this movie hinged on a twist or on the identity of the killer, it wouldn’t have had nearly the same longevity. The core question would be answered, and rewatching would be all but an academic exercise. Instead, it begs to be seen multiple times because of how complete the world is – etched in every nook and cranny by small details that dim the lights on urban living while giving us just enough hope to stop eyeballing the noose.

There are great personality quirks like Mills leaving his coffee cups in strange places (the hands of a uniform cop, on a stoop, littered beneath a stairwell) as well as he and Tracy’s flirtation of calling each other Idiot and Loser. There’s R. Lee Ermey’s police captain answering a phone with, “This isn’t even my desk,” and Mills asking about worker’s comp covering a nipple-shaving accident.

It also opens and closes with a crime of passion (an unnamed couple where Mills meets Somerset and the head-filled box), leaves almost all violence off-screen, and features inventive jump scares (Mills’ face in a bucket of vomit or, of course, Sloth’s mushy brain coming to life).

In other words, like Sloth, this movie is alive.

Plus, it features twists that aren’t really twists but true revelations that find us kicking ourselves in the foot. A lesser movie would have held for audience applause after revealing that the photographer on the stairs was actually the killer, but Se7en swerves past it, letting it breathe only a moment when they get into his apartment before laying more pounds of flesh onto the pile. Likewise, John Doe’s true identity isn’t a twist (“It was Mills the whole time!”), but his turning himself in at the police station is unexpected as is his further design.

The procedural isn’t the point. Doe’s identity is ultimately blown out of the water by the result of his giving himself up. What’s even crazier is that the movie resists what must have been a natural urge to point out that Doe doesn’t kill anyone except Tracy directly. A model for Jigsaw, he gives people a choice and allows their sins to turn against them, but you won’t hear the movie make that point.

The guy forced to kill the prostitute is the only forward-facing example we get of this reality, and his scene achieves something far greater than pointing out how clever the script is. Leland Orser (in a damned master class of acting) makes every bit of traumatic intensity real for us. With less than a minute of screen time, it stays with you, especially since it comes after we’ve already experienced a forceful amount of unyielding filth. He’s a release valve who can barely get a sentence out of his mouth.

Which is how the movie leaves its audience, even today. There’s almost nothing dated about it (except for pagers and a conspicuous lack of internet usage), it’s absolutely gorgeous, troubling in its depth of character, crafted to singular perfection, and I imagine that we’ll still be puzzling over it another 20 years from now.

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