Director: David Fincher
Screenwriter: Andrew Kevin Walker
Starring: Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey, Gwyneth Paltrow
25 years ago, the world was introduced to one of the most intense thriller crime dramas of all time, David Fincher’s Se7en. It was a film that had all the makings of a classic, from a powerful narrative written by Andrew Kevin Walker to extraordinary acting by the likes of multi-time award winners Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey and Gwyneth Paltrow. Yet, in the year of its release (1995), it was only ever nominated for one Oscar and one BAFTA; so what was it missing? Is it possible that we’ve been over-hyping this popular film ever since? Or does Fincher’s calling card release just get better and better with age?
Warning: Major Spoilers
Se7en follows William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), a soon-to-be retired cop who is partnered with David Mills (Brad Pitt), a cop new to the city. Together they investigate a serial murder case in which each death is modeled on one of the seven deadly sins. After the first five killings, the murderer known as John Doe (Kevin Spacey) turns himself in and promises to take the detectives to the final two bodies. In the film’s final twist, it is revealed that Doe has murdered Mills’ wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) out of envy (the 6th sin) and now expects Mills to kill him out of wrath (the 7th). Mills is torn by the moral conundrum, but ends up taking Doe’s life despite Somerset’s warnings, the film concluding with Mills being taken away as Somerset finally leaves the force.
This brief story-beat outline is indicative of a sublime narrative that is anchored by the threatening and ever-thoughtful representation of the film’s antagonist. One striking aspect of John Doe’s methods is that he never directly kills anyone, he forces them to kill themselves. The point he is trying to prove is that these sins are killing these specific people, and in every case he is proven to be correct, except one. That “one that got away” for Doe is Sloth, which makes for the most terrifying scene in the entire film. The build up is Fincher at his very best, low lighting and tense silence enveloping the drama as a squad of enforcement officers move through a building, the scene playing with expectations as one suitable conclusion is met, only for one of the greatest jumpscares in film history to come out of nowhere. It’s a scare that works time after time, and imbues Se7en with the terror of its subject matter from there on out. The narrative, in of itself, is utterly watchable, but the ways in which each murder is presented is particularly noteworthy, each scene adding a new level of depth to which characters each sin is effecting and how.
An unlikely highlight of Se7en is the relationship that develops between Somerset and Mills. They become unlikely friends in pursuit of this demonic villain, despite their differences, and it is immediately apparent that they are seemingly the same type of man, just at different points in their lives. This building of trust, signified most effectively when Mills’ wife tells Somerset of her pregnancy, is intricately woven throughout the fabric of the piece through well-timed jokes and an otherwise intelligent use of dialogue. Together, we see them build a case and a mutual respect, bringing the finale with added weight of personal investment between the two officers, as well as every other character involved. It isn’t realised how important their relationship and trust is to the story until each is heartbreakingly destroyed at the end of the film when the secret of Tracy’s pregnancy is forced front and centre in a conclusion about as immaculate in direction, screenwriting and performance as any in recent decades. Here, Spacey’s sinisterly calm delivery is enough to send chills down anyone’s spine as it carries an undertone of pleasure for the acts he has committed and disdain for the people he has killed. His behaviour towards Mills is even creepier the second time watching, as you now know that despite Pitt’s brilliantly angry and belittling demeanour, Doe has the upper hand.
It is clear, even after a quarter of a century, that Se7en absolutely holds up. Whether you’re watching it for the first time or you’re watching it for the 25th, there’s something unique and special to be found, from impeccable acting and imaginative and sinister scenarios, to genuinely chilling moments of horror and (in an even deeper way) an almost forced introspection on your own “sins”. Above all, it is a journey that is simply unforgettable, a great release from a director who has since had many more. Se7en, at 25 years old, feels as fresh and significant as ever, all the while reminding us that it’s what you do with the most simple aspects of filmmaking that make or break a truly great silver screen story.