written by Andrew Kevin Walker
directed by David Fincher
“You know, this is not gonna have a happy ending.” Truer words have never been uttered. Spoken by detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) halfway through David Fincher’s landmark Se7en, the dialogue not only foreshadows the film’s ending, it prepares the audience for one of the most unnerving, horrific climaxes in modern cinematic history.
I remember seeing Se7en at the cinema when it first came out and just sitting there after it was over, glued to my seat, mouth open. I couldn’t believe a big-budget Hollywood film with big stars could end with a serial killer triumphing by getting himself killed. If that’s not some devious shit, I don’t know what is. I don’t think I’d seen something like that since the 70s when there was an abundance of daring films with even edgier finales (1971’s Dirty Harry and 1974’s Chinatown come to mind).
Make no mistake, Se7en is a horror film. It may have elements of the police procedural, the buddy flick, even the noir. But just like Alien (1979) was more of a monster movie than science fiction, Se7en‘s main focus is to scare the crap out of us by plunging us deep into the mind of a psychopath and his demonic master plan. This is a twisted downward spiral into darkness, an exercise in real fear, not based on ghosts, slashers, or creatures. It rather explores something more insidious and infinitely more terrifying: The murky pits of the human mind.
The plot centers on Somerset, a world-weary investigator on his way to retirement (Freeman, exceptional), who’s reluctantly partnered with David Mills (Brad Pitt, equally exceptional), a younger hothead who’s hungry to make his mark. The “seven” from the title refers both to the number of days Somerset has left in the force (the film runs from Monday to Sunday, not counting the opening sequence) and to the killer’s inspiration, the seven deadly sins from Christian lore: Gluttony, greed, sloth, lust, pride, envy, and wrath.
And what an artist this killer is. In deciding to rid the world of people who represent these sins, he feeds an obese man until his stomach bursts (gluttony), forces a lawyer to cut a pound of his own flesh (greed), slashes the face of a pretty model (pride), makes a john fuck a prostitute to death (lust), and keeps a junkie tied to a bed for a year, slowly rotting away (sloth). Nice, wholesome stuff. But wait. The best two – envy and wrath – he’ll save for last. More on this later.
Making Somerset the main focal point is the first stroke of genius in Andrew Kevin Walker’s script. Somerset is tired of the city, with its incessant rumble (he listens to the click of a metronome to drown out the noise and fall asleep), its violence, its senselessness. For him, the city has become a place synonymous with chaos. On the other hand, Mills is naive, idealistic, full of energy – perhaps the way Somerset himself once was. Throughout the course of the film, the grizzled policeman is our moral compass, as he tries to teach the inexperienced investigator about the harsh reality of their work. But Mills won’t have it. He’s blinded by an overwhelming desire to catch the killer, John Doe (Kevin Spacey, in a tour de force performance). It will cost him, and dearly.
The second ace in the hole is Fincher’s direction: Se7en is truly a master class in filmmaking. Nuances of shadow and light (captured by ace cinematographer Darius Khondji), complex characters, a propulsive score by Howard Shore that slowly ratchets up the tension, art direction that doesn’t skimp on the most minute details (the opening credits designed by Kyle Cooper are still groundbreaking today, and often badly imitated). This is a film that drips with atmosphere, where every rainy day, every subway train roaring by, every police siren, supports Somerset’s conviction of a city in entropy. For my money, this is Fincher’s best film, even with other standouts in his résumé such as Fight Club (1999) and Zodiac (2007). The dread oozes out of the screen like a heavy fog.
And here’s the truly brilliant part: The murders are never shown, only suggested. We only see what Somerset and Mills see, the shocking aftermath of the killings. This is intentional and highly effective – by the time the detectives finally “catch” Doe, we have built him up in our minds as a veritable embodiment of evil, an unstoppable force. It’s also what makes the final sequence such a pièce de résistance.
You see, the final two sins will involve the detectives themselves.
And Somerset knows it.
To understand this, I want to go back to a specific scene where Mills and Somerset happen to find Doe’s hideaway by sheer luck. Doe is just arriving at the same time they’re knocking at his door. He opens fire at the detectives, then runs away. After a lengthy chase ending in an alley, Doe hits Mills on the head, then holds him at gunpoint. Doe has all the time in the world to kill him… but doesn’t. Instead, he disappears in the rain. Why does he let Mills go?
Doe’s diary pages confirm his disdain for humanity – the detectives realize he’s preaching, making a statement. And ironically, that statement is the same one Somerset makes throughout the film: Mankind lives and breathes in a cesspool of corruption and filth. Somerset and Doe are two sides of the same coin, but whereas Somerset has given up hope, Doe has decided to act. Because they both see the world the same way, Somerset has unique insight into Doe’s psyche. Somerset’s first clue? The fact that Doe doesn’t kill Mills, even though he had ample time to do so.
Doe lets Mills go because, from the very beginning, he’s been counting on manipulating someone – a detective – into fitting the sin of wrath. He’s also chosen himself as the personification of envy, since he’s always yearned to enjoy the life of a “simple” man, with a job and a wife. So the perfect, logical way to finish his opus is to be murdered… by Mills. As Doe gives himself over to the authorities (this is the second clue for Somerset), he starts to move the last pieces of his elaborate chess game. Somerset instinctively feels something’s wrong: Why has this brilliant killer decided to stop? He doesn’t know why, but there is no doubt in his mind that Mills and himself are pawns in it (Freeman plays all of this brilliantly, with just body language and eye movements). And this is key to the power of Se7en‘s final sequence, because, unconsciously, the audience also knows.
Words really can’t explain the final twenty minutes of Se7en. Somerset opening a box and realizing John Doe has won. Mills’ tears as fury and pain take over. Doe closing his eyes in victory as he gets his head blown off. The realization that once it’s all over, Mills is physically alive, but mentally and emotionally dead, bringing the killer’s plan full circle (seven deadly sins, seven deaths). Hell, once it’s all over, the end credits roll backwards to the tune of David Bowie’s The Hearts Filthy Lesson (1995). It’s one big “holy shit” crescendo, tuned to a perfect fever pitch, and the likes of which I’m not sure we’ll see again anytime soon.
This is the stuff of nightmares.
Carlos I. Cuevas