Cinematic Pleasures: Seven
by j.d. lafrance
Living in any major metropolitan city in North America can be a dangerous experience. There is a certain amount of fear and paranoia that exists in these densely populated, often congested areas. When you have that many different types of people living in one place problems are bound to arise. In the past, these problems have always seemed containable, maybe even solvable, but now there is a certain sense of pessimism or apathy that pervades the public consciousness. Where once there was hope there is only despair, or worse yet, disinterest. Seven (1995) is a film that taps into these feelings with startling accuracy and clarity. It is a disturbing descent into a dark, urban hell that is at once powerful and unpleasant.
Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is a thoughtful man on the verge of retirement and clearly tired of the uncaring city he is forced to protect. His early retirement is a way out, an escape from this horrible place that keeps him awake at night with its noises of people yelling, blaring sirens, and incessant traffic. As the film begins, he is assigned a new partner and a new case. David Mills (Brad Pitt) is a young, up-and-coming detective who is energetic and hopeful--everything that Somerset is not.
The case starts off simply enough: an extremely obese man is found dead in his squalid apartment. It seems that the man had been force fed at gunpoint. At first, Somerset wants nothing to do with the case, but then a second murder occurs. A prominent defense attorney is found dead in his office with the word, "greed" written on the carpet in his own blood. After going back to the previous crime scene and finding the word, "gluttony," Somerset realizes that there is a pattern forming--these murders are in fact fashioned after the seven deadly sins: sloth, wrath, pride, lust, envy, greed, and gluttony. Still, he does not wish to get involved in the investigation, but the unique style of these murders continues to nag at him. So he and Mills team up and find themselves delving deeper and deeper into this case.
Seven's origins lie in a screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker, whose previous credits include a string of forgettable films like Brainscan (1994) and Hideaway (1995). To his credit, these scripts were altered significantly by other people to the point where they barely resembled his original idea. This is all changed with Seven, which remained relatively untouched throughout the entire production. Even the downbeat ending was not changed, thanks in large part to the influence of the film's two big stars, Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, and the film's director, David Fincher, who insisted that the ending was not to be changed in any way.
In an interview with Cinefantastique magazine, Walker stated that the primary influence for the film's screenplay came from his time spent in New York City while trying to make it as a screenwriter. "I didn't like my time in New York, but it's true that if I hadn't lived there I probably wouldn't have written Seven." This distaste for big city life is readily evident from the first exterior shot of the film that features an urban abyss filled with crowded, noisy denizens while an oppressive rain always seems to fall without respite. This look was an integral part of the film, as Fincher wanted to show a city that was "dirty, violent, polluted, often depressing. Visually and stylistically, that's how we wanted to portray this world. Everything needed to be as authentic and raw as possible."
To this end, Fincher turned to production designer Arthur Max to create a dismal world that often eerily mirrors its inhabitants. "We created a setting that reflects the moral decay of the people in it," says Max. "Everything is falling apart, and nothing is working properly." The film's brooding, dark look was also created through a unique chemical process whereby the silver in the film stock was re-bonded which in turn deepened the dark, shadowy images in the film and increased its overall tonal quality. Max and Fincher do such an impressive job on the setting that the city begins to take a life of its own, almost becoming another character.
However detailed and impressive the setting is, it never overwhelms the characters who dwell there. In particular, the three main characters, played by Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, and Gwyneth Paltrow (who plays Pitt's wife in the film), are so strong and distinctive that they refuse to be lost in the atmospheric mise en scene. Freeman is excellent as the jaded policeman who is ready to call it quits. Somerset is a world apart from the stereotypical, shoot-first-ask-questions-later cop that is usually depicted in these kinds of films. Freeman portrays him as a patient man, who is methodical and thorough in his methods-much like the killer and much like the film itself, which takes its time and draws you in with an almost hypnotic intensity. Somerset is also a thoughtful and reflective person. There are many shots of Freeman just standing or sitting in silence as he tries to figure everything out, to make sense of it all. Most films would never take the time to show these kinds of things.
For such an ominous and forbidding film, there are some real moments of warmth and compassion and these are provided by Gwyneth Paltrow. There is a great scene where she invites Freeman's character over for dinner and the three characters talk and laugh over a meal. This scene comes as a welcome relief from the horror that we have experienced so far. Paltrow, with her engaging smile and gentleness, imbues Seven with a much-needed touch of humanity and transforms what could have easily been a standard wife role into a touching portrayal of a woman torn between the love for her husband and her doubts of living in such a threatening city.
Credit must also go to Seven's director, David Fincher, and the film's cinematographer, Darius Khondji, who create a visually evocative world and take the time to develop the characters. No rapid-fire MTV editing here, which is a surprise considering Fincher's background as music video director. He only breaks the suspenseful pace for a truly exhilarating chase through a run-down building as the two detectives pursue a mysterious figure that might be the killer. We are suddenly thrust into an adrenaline-driven scene fueled by jarring, hand-held camera shots that are quick and disorienting. This approach enhances the scary, unpredictable quality of the scene as we frantically try to get our bearings. Up until then, nothing prepares us for this sudden jolt and the effect is very powerful indeed.
Seven is ultimately a mesmerizing condemnation of life in sprawling, urban areas. For such a negative view, one would have to look back to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976), a film that also presented an nightmarish vision of a big city. While the two films share some of the same thematic preoccupations, Seven's stylish predecessor would seem to be Blade Runner (1982) with its noisy, congested, rainswept landscape and film noir look. Seven is a powerful, distinctive film that offers a refreshing take on the tired serial killer genre.