At the Movies with Alan Gekko: Se7en “1995”

MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Crime Thriller-Horror/ Stars: Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow, R. Lee Ermey, John C. McGinley, Richard Roundtree, Reg. E Cathey, Richard Schiff/ Runtime: 127 minutes

It is almost always raining in the city and Somerset, the veteran detective about to retire and walk away from the depravity, wears a hat and raincoat while Mills, the kid who has just been transferred into the district and Somerset’s replacement of sorts, walks bare-headed in the rain as if he’ll be young forever. On their first day together, they find themselves investigating the death of a truly fat man they find face-down in a dish of pasta, and it is this grim death that unknowingly sets these 2 detectives on a collision course with a serial killer who intends to showcase one of the Seven Deadly Sins with every murder that he commits. This of course is the story behind David Fincher’s 1995 film “Se7en,” one of the darkest and most merciless films ever made in the Hollywood mainstream. Indeed it should be said that although this is as formulaic as an Agatha Christie whodunit “Se7en” takes place not in the genteel world of country house murders, but in the lives of two cops: one who thinks he has seen it all and the other who has no idea what he is about to see.

Nor is this a film about detection as surprisingly the killer in this film actually shows up, rather than just stay a highly coveted object of interest, when the film still has more than 30 minutes left in the tank. Rather Se7en is more of a character study, in which the older man finds himself becoming a scholar of depravity and the younger man in turn experiencing said depravity in one of the most painful ways possible. Indeed while a hopeful quote by Hemingway was added as a voice-over after preview audiences found the original ending too horrifying, the original ending is still there, and the quote plays more like a bleak joke because after this film’s devastating conclusion, the Hemingway line really truly is small consolation.

Now the enigma of Morgan Freeman’s character Somerset is at the heart of this film, and this has to be beyond a doubt in my mind one of Morgan Freeman’s best performances as he embodies authority naturally and I honestly cannot recall him ever playing a weak man. Here though Freeman also gives us a world-weary man who knows all the lessons a cop might internalize during years spent in what we learn is one of the worst districts of the city: He lives alone, in what looks like a rented apartment, bookshelves on the walls, he puts himself to sleep with a metronome, he never married, although he came close once and above all he is a lonely man who confronts life with resigned detachment. Yet when he realizes just what exactly he is dealing with he does what few people would do: he goes to the library, of all places, and upon arriving there he looks into such classic pieces of literature as Dante’s Inferno, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Indeed it’s not that he reads them so much as that he references them for viewers and this is due to the fact that it is often effective in a horror film to introduce disturbing elements from literature as atmosphere, and Fincher brilliantly adds to this by providing glimpses of Gustav Dore’s illustrations for Dante, including the famous depiction of a woman with spider legs and Somerset sounds almost erudite as he names the deadly sins to Mills, who seems to be hearing of them for the first time and when you think about it what’s being used here is the same sort of approach William Friedkin employed in “The Exorcist” and Jonathan Demme employed in “The Silence of the Lambs.”

Thus we get what could have been a routine cop movie quickly finding itself elevated by the evocation of dread mythology and symbolism and while Se7en is not really a very deep or profound film it does provide the convincing illusion of being one and while almost all mainstream thrillers seek first to provide entertainment this one intends to fascinate and appall and by giving the impression of scholarship, Detective Somerset lends a depth and significance to what the killer apparently considers moral statements. To be sure, Somerset does luck out in finding that the killer has a library card although with this killer I feel it must be said that, when you think back after finally watching the full movie, you wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that he didn’t get his ideas in the library, and also checked out those books to lure the police along in the game.

Now the five murders investigated by the reluctant partners does provide a welcome punch of variety to this genre and it becomes clear that the killer has obviously gone to elaborate pains in planning and carrying them out — in one case, at least a year in advance, but his agenda in the film’s climactic scene, however, must have been improvised recently. Indeed Se7en does a fantastic job of drawing us relentlessly into its horrors, some of which are all the more effective for being glimpsed in brief shots. Indeed we can only be sure of the killing methods after the cops discuss them–although a shot of the contents of a plastic bag after an autopsy hardly requires more explanation and Fincher brilliantly shows us enough to disgust us, and then wisely cuts away before it becomes too much.

Also while Somerset and Mills represent established fiction formulas as the old hand and the greenhorn respectively, the actors and the dialogue by Andrew Kevin Walker do a fantastic job of enriching the formulas with specific details and not to mention Freeman’s precise, laconic speech. Now while upon first glance, Brad Pitt may seem to some audiences as more one-dimensional, or perhaps guarded due to his character being a young hothead, quick to dismiss wise old Freeman’s caution and experience, Pitt still does a fantastic job of portraying this young, impulsive detective who will find himself changed to the core by film’s end. Throughout all of this however, it is Mills’ wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) who brings a note of humanity into the picture as while we never find out very much about her we do know she loves her husband, worries about him, and has especially good instincts when she invites Somerset over for dinner as it is best to make an ally of the man who her husband needs and can learn from. Indeed when one watches Se7en for the first time one is not in the wrong to assume the Tracy character is simply a place-holder with the label of Protagonist’s Wife and honestly denied much dimension, but trust me when I say that the film truly is saving her impact until much, much later on and when one thinks back through the film after watching it you find your appreciation for the construction of her character’s impact growing with each viewing.

Now the killer, as I said near the beginning, finally shows up with 30 minutes to go in the film, and from that point forward absolutely dominates the movie, and when Se7en was first released in 1995 the ads, posters and opening credits wisely didn’t mention the name of the actor who portrays this madman and although you may well know who it is I honestly don’t think I will either. Suffice it to say this actor had a big assignment in the form of embodying the movie’s version of Evil personified, and like Anthony Hopkins playing Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs, this character came with the requirement of being played by a strong actor who can successfully and brilliantly project not just mere villainy, but twisted psychological complexity. Indeed the film essentially depends on this character being portrayed exactly the way he needs to be, and honestly the film would’ve gone astray if the actor in question had faltered even for a second. Suffice it to say the actor in question doesn’t. Not one bit.

Now Se7en was only David Fincher’s second feature, after “Alien 3” (1992) and in his work he likes a saturated palate and gravitates toward somber colors and underlighted interiors, but honestly none of his films before or after this are darker than this one. Indeed like Spielberg in a way, he infuses the air in his interiors with a fine unseen powder that makes the beams of flashlights visible, emphasizing the surrounding darkness and while I don’t know why the interior lights in Se7en so often seem weak or absent I’m not complaining as it really helps set the atmosphere and then helps keep it steady for the duration of the film.

All in all directed brilliantly by David Fincher, skillfully written by Andrew Kevin Walker, and given life by a truly wonderful cast Se7en is a well-crafted, well-acted and ingeniously clever labyrinth of a thrill ride that is also one of the greatest albeit at the same time darkest films the 90’s ever sought fit to give us. On a scale of 1-5 I give Se7en a 4 out of 5.