David Fincher: Se7en (1995) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

David Fincher: Se7en (1995)

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Ryan:  I love the film Se7en.  Not only is it one of my favorite films by David Fincher, but one of my favorite films already and if I didn't already plan on doing this feature, I would have done Se7en as my favorite film of the '90s.  The story is great and very tight, but we will get to that later.  What I want to talk about is some of the cinematic trickery that Fincher does so well which helps make this film such a terrifying dive into the depths of man's worst nightmares.  Watch the film again and look at these bits of visual craftsmanship:

1.  Fincher and his group found a way to make a colorized version of a black and white noir but at the same time like it is also a '70s cop thriller a la The French Connection.

2.  Cinematographer Darius Khondji had worked on many ads before this film for products like perfume.  His style, naturally, was very sensual and beautiful.  Fincher takes his talents and has him do the exact opposite by making it dirty, dark, and anything but sensual.  This is more interesting because you have a person that sees beauty making something ugly, which is more exciting than a stylist who loves ugly making a gritty picture.

3.  The use of lighting and shadows in the film really help set the mood.  Watch the way flashlights are used through many scenes (the Gluttony reveal, Sloth, and the investigation of John Doe's apartment).  The way the actors use the flashlight to bathe themselves in shadow or light speaks volumes about the moment.  THere are many instances of the flashlight shooting directly into the camera to at once make the movie really dark and also jarringly bright.  The flashlight also helps add the tension because the viewer is waiting for the beam to catch something that is lurking just off screen or in shadows.

4.  To add to the lighting, the use of angles in the film makes everything feel a little off.  Scenes start at weird angles with the actor not correctly framed in the shot.  There are also unique compositions with how the actors are positioned in the setting and where in relation the camera is positioned.

5.  The editing of the film is not "smooth."  What I mean is a shot ends abruptly and is stacked on top of the next one.  it takes a few seconds for the viewer to catch up with the action and adds to that "off" feeling and unease.

6.  The crime scenes are shot and staged in such ways that make the viewer feel claustrophobic.  In these crime-scenes the ceiling is very low, the rooms are small and the lights are almost non-existent.  Add this together and Fincher makes it feel like the walls are closing in on the characters and, in a way for the people watching.

7.  Compare the crime-scenes to the place where Somerset (Morgan Freeman) feels most at home, the library.  The library setting is high ceilings, open space and a lamp on every table.  If the apartments of all the victims make you feel shut in, the library is warm and inviting, like a blanket on a bitterly cold day.

8.  One of my favorite sets is the police station, the movie has a noir-ish feeling throughout and the police station looks like it jumped directly out of a '40s detective pic.

9.  Fincher is known for his meticulous nature.  No set/scene in this film feels half-done.  The props are placed with purpose down to the dust and paint.  That makes this film feel real and lived in and the viewer cannot escape into a fantasy world.  This realness coupled with how the angles/editing make everything a little off makes everything unsettling to the highest degree.

10.  Another little touch I liked, the path leading to each of the crime scenes involve elaborate and twisted corridors.  This reaches its pinnacle with the Lust crime scene where everything is simultaneously coated in industrial dread and blood-red lighting.  The only way to solve this case is to go in through the rabbit hole, and it will never end.

11.  While the story of Mills (Brad Pitt) pulling his gun out is very typical of a cop film, the way the whole scene in that car is staged is totally unique.  The first thing that is different is how the two actors are positioned.  Pitt is in the front and Freeman is in the back.  When they are talking, neither look at each other and they do all of their dialogue while looking straight ahead instead of at each other.  The one shot of Freeman in the back seat is partially obscured by the drivers seat.  This is another case of the movie being purposely messy in its composition.  Finally, look at the light shooting through and how harsh and bright it appears.  Even though it is raining, light is coming through and almost blinding Pitt and Freeman.  I still don't know the exact reason for this but it is something I always notice.

12.  In conclusion, where the hell is this place?  For most of the film, the setting seems like it is somewhere out east like New York.  It is rainy, cold and not very welcoming.  THen the movie pulls a 180 and ends in a giant desert.  I know the film was shot in LA, but changing the scenery so drastically in the end was the final way that Fincher made the viewer uneasy and the harshness of the change subconsciously made you prepared for something drastic to happen, which the film delivers in spades.

Andrew COMMENTARYAndrew:  "Today on Can't Stop The Movies - Ryan presents 'War and Peace' as viewed through the cinematographic lens of Fincher and company.  Stay tuned for the local news at 10."  Guess I might as well respond in kind.

Buddy, if you're gonna type every possible good thing to say about these movies in the first run through then I'll end up the proverbial wet rag each time.  But you make some solid points, and if there's one thing I also want to make clear with anyone who read through that sprawling tome it's that Seven looks absolutely fantastic.  The silver was left in the film stock through a process called 'bleach bypass' (simplified: laying a black and white picture over a colored one) and helps make the strongest case since Chinatown about the potential for a color noir.

But Fincher isn't really interested in doing a noir and, truth be told, he was terribly hesitant about crawling back behind the camera after his awful experiences with Alien 3.  Putting aside our respective difference about how we view the quality of that film, it seems to have definitely added a sense of unease to his later productions.  If Alien 3 was a great example of genre execution, every film he has made since has been trying to subvert or deconstruct the genre it takes place in.

Seven (I refuse to add that "7" in there, thanks Cradle 2 The Grave) takes the buddy-cop and noir tropes to their darkest extremes.  There's no eventual reconciliation between Somerset and Mills like you get in most of these films.  The closest we get is a quiet moment in the shower fifteen minutes before the credits roll when they joke around about how happy they are that this whole ordeal will be over.  The rest of the film they can barely help themselves from ripping the other's throat out, though Mills has a harder time concealing this than Somerset.

Buddy cop tropes are incompatible with film noir and Seven plays off their attempted fusion beautifully.  The audience keeps expecting the detectives to buddy up and stop bickering but the increasing ferocity of the crimes makes it impossible to find any sort of reconciliation.  This is made worse since Somerset is forced into the "wise mentor" role but won't let the young buck do anything, and the "hothead rookie" is one day away from cleaning out the police force with an uzi.  They're horrible partners who mostly work alone and genuinely cannot handle these murders (playing back to what you were saying with a common Fincher trope being strong characters placed in "unwinnable situations).

I have three problems with this film which detract from my enjoyment.  The first being, just who the hell are these people?  I understand Fincher is playing with tropes, but the problem is that we are thrust into the case and these people with dialogue so filled with cliche' it's unintentionally funny at first.  It's not until we discover the Gluttony crime scene that the film takes on an intensified reality.  But even afterwards the conversations between just Somerset and Mills are strained and, worse, a bit boring.  This leads to my biggest issued, and that is Fincher has not yet figured out how to work a female character into his story (which is also why I'm terribly interested in how Girl With A Dragon Tattoo will play out.)

"But what about Ripley?" I hear you asking.  She was essentially gender-neutral throughout Alien 3 and physically altered her appearance to reflect this.  While I'm looking forward to watching Panic Room again to see if there's any difference, this issue is a problem in Seven and goes to embarrassing lengths in Fight Club.  Gwyneth Paltrow barely registers in this film, which admittedly is kind of the point, but since she gets scenes to herself with the detectives and again with Somerset, she needs to make more of an impression.  The problem with playing with tropes is Paltrow comes off only as the standard doting wife, and then the tool of an ironically perfect ending.

Which brings me to my third problem.  The ending is too perfect and shows Fincher's greatest weakness early on - he loves his irony too much.  John Doe, after a fantastic reveal, shows himself to be an incalculably perfect God mind able to predict events down to the smallest detail.  This is a complete 180 from the way his character is presented barely thirty minutes before when he sporadically opens fire on the detectives.  He's better off in the shadows, an entity never felt or seen (another lesson Fincher learned for Zodiac).  Instead of the lingering presence of religious nihilism he's written in entirely as a plot contrivance, and each time I've seen the movie that ending nags at me.

Ryan:  I agree that when John Doe starts cracking wise about the dead dog I grit my teeth because it is not the character they had set up to at that point.  He is not a witty one-liner spewing kind of villain, rather the Fincher version of The Joker, a character bigger than life who is the ultimate test for the heroes.  I also love the conversation between the three in the car on the way to the finale, the dialogue and acting is superb in this scene and it even lets John Doe make some points the detectives don't have an answer to and foreshadows the fact the bad guy does win in the end.

I disagree about Gwyneth Paltrow and the detectives relationship in the film.  The detectives were on the same page by the time Doe is caught and making demands through his lawyer.  They both know the case isn't over and make the decision together to see it through to the end.  By this time they know where each one stands on the case and humanity in general and have learned how to set their differences aside to end the horror show.

I also believe Paltrow's character of Tracy is exactly what she needed to be in the film, the one bright light for our leads.  Much like the flashlight beams, her presence keeps Mills grounded and Somerset melancholy for what he never had.  This is perfectly shown after the Lust crime.  Mills goes home, gets in bed, snuggles with his wife and let's the horrors of the day wash off of him thanks to her.  The movie compares this to Somerset who tries to fall asleep but nothing works.  He throws his metronome because he's finally given up on trying to sleep since he has no one to help him forget.

This also helps set up the ending because Somerset has given up on most things in life like settling down with someone and has even given up on humanity and his dream is to live alone in the middle of nowhere.  This is all brought up while two detectives are having a drink togetehr and Mills disagrees with him because he still sees the good in people because of the love in his life.  This is also the reason Tracy's head had to be in the box and Mills had to have the gun, he was the only one who still had something to lose.  Somerset had no one and no hope left so the only one left to destroy is Mills, Somerset has been ruined by years of being a detective in the unnamed city.

The final thing I want to bring up is how violence and the horrors are shown in the film.  I have read many times that Se7en helped usher in the world of torture porn and I call a big BS on this account.  Unlike Hostel and Saw, Se7en is all about the aftermath of these horrible events and they never show the crime.  Most of the horrible images you have from the film are from your own imagination.  There might be a shot of bonded hands, a splash of blood or a picture of the murder weapon, but there is no glorification of the violence in the film.  I think the movie is more disturbing for this and is a reason it goes miles above anything Eli Roth has ever done.

Fincher hit it out of the park with Se7en and is a movie I go back and watch often, even if it means I have to watch happy comedies for a week afterward to wash the blackness out of me after watching this well made but horrifically dark film.

Andrew COMMENTARYAndrew:  One thing I do enjoy about that ending is the way it subverts the "retirement" cliche.  Somerset starts off the film talking about his six days to retirement, but really it's the rookie's life which is completely over by the time the movie is said and through.  Beyond that, I still disagree with you about the detective's cooperation.  Right up until the final drive they are not even seeing eye to eye about how to handle John Doe's deal, Mills refuses to shut up at Somerset's suggestion, and so on.

The issue with Tracy is a bigger one than I think you're willing to acknowledge.  Her position of comfort in the movie has a lot more to do with how she is lit then how she is written.  Paltrow's scenes are lit just like Freeman's scenes in the library, the biggest problem with this being that all Tracy gets to do in this movie is offer some comfort, get pregnant and then be killed.  For a movie filled with archetypes she ends up the most flat, forced into death by a writer's hand and less a vengeful God/murderers.  It's like you noted with the scenery change into the desert - it's cool, but it seems to make all of the characters turn into even shallower versions of themselves.

This isn't to say that Seven isn't a great film, because it surely is, but the flaws of a director who liked the position of his irony a little too much.  This is part of why the ending is so unsatisfactory, but scenes like the Lust killing hit a bit too on the nose.  Not that I've worn the apparatus pictured below, but having had kidney stones thrust upon me I know what it's like feeling something tear through your sexual organs, and the extent presented in Seven is not my idea of a good time.

This film is 90% top-notch entertainment and craft pitched directly at the "me" generation spirituality of the '90s.  The remaining 10% is ambitious as hell, but falls flat in a sea of its own heightened sense of self-awareness.  More directors would do well to have those proportions in play.

Next week we find out how you can better plan your next birthday party with The Game.


Posted by Andrew

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  1. Thrillers rarely delve this deep into the mind of a psychopath, nor do they tend to get the audience to practically connect with the psychopath on a level of understanding. I love Fight Club as much as the next guy, but Seven‘s in a league of its own on a number of levels. Good review.

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