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Descending into the “Se7en”th circle of hell

Se7en (New Line Cinema)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema, and the filmmaker’s own biography. With his latest, Mank, now on Netflix, we’re spending December rifling through the cold, exacting details of David Fincher and the ways his music-video-inspired aesthetics changed American filmmaking. Read the rest of our coverage here.

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Director David Fincher’s movies are generally fascinated with creating a mythos around his characters that then breeds an egotistical obsession of oneself. It’s no wonder famous people like Mark Zuckerberg, Orson Welles, and the Zodiac Killer became points of fascination for him. He is also fascinated by propaganda and engages in it a bit himself. 

The origin of this, of course, is in the central killer in Se7en, whose existence throughout most of the film is that of a mythological God, bending human life to his whim and weaving it into his own personal narrative and philosophy. Being tugged along for this ride are detectives William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and David Mills (Brad Pitt). 

Like in True Detective, a show which basically takes the entire DNA of Se7en and stretches it into a prestige TV series, the story begins with an odd couple of detectives who don’t really get along or personally like working with each other at first, but through their investigation come to respect and understand each others’ ticks. Mills is the young upstart who’s eager to ‘do good’ and take on the world with his fist. 

Somerset is a weary veteran who knows the many ways the cruelty of the world chews idealists up and spits them back out. Andrew Kevin Walker‘s script plays off the character traits extremely well, especially in the memorable dialogue like Mills’ sardonic quip, “just because he has a fucking library card doesn’t mean he’s Yoda!”. 

Se7en (New Line Cinema)
Se7en (New Line Cinema)

The ‘world’ that Fincher surrounds these characters with is a peculiar and menacing one. It looks and feels like New York, but there is no clear evidence of a location, just the generic notion of a big city, filled with high ceilings, long hallways and street-sides populated with wet newspapers and the homeless. 

Yet, it feels like a circle in Dante’s inferno. Somerset describes the history of his living there as being a never-ending parade of vicious and sadistic violence on nearly every corner – one story he relays is of a man getting mugged and his eyes gouged out while simply walking his dog. Mills and his wife Tracy’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) recent move to the city is met with discomforts. Their apartment rattles and shakes supposedly from the violent subway trains pummeling on the bridges near them – like something out of David Lynch’s Rabbits where the disruptor is never seen, just heard and ominously felt. 

Fincher’s direction is top-notch, Darius Khondji‘s cinematography featuring a damp, greyed- and browned-out palate that features both dilapidated apartments filmed in claustrophobic closeup and palatial libraries and government halls filmed with Dutch angles accentuating the smallness of the citizens to the unknown powers of the city they inhabit. 

These powers, it seems, are being explicitly puppeteered by John Doe (Kevin Spacey), the film’s central killer and in nearly all respects besides physical presence its central character as well. Spacey’s character – a seemingly untouchable and unknowable figure who he plays twice in the year 1995, the other time in The Usual Suspects – serves as a catalyst for Fincher’s exploration of generational ideology in looking at the world. John Doe is absent from most of the film and therefore, he represents a metaphorical node for the meaning of suffering. Why does he behave in such mysterious ways? Is he testing us? Young people and old people deal with these questions differently, the former through skepticism like Mills, and the latter with begrudging despair like Somerset. 

The investigation takes many layers as the killer’s motives are slowly divulged. He is killing based on the seven deadly sins from Christian religious teachings. These make prominent appearances in the works of both Dante Allighieri (The Divine Comedy – “Purgatory”) and Geoffrey Chaucer (The Canterbury Tales – “The Parson’s Tale”), which Somerset and Mills study thoroughly for hopes of finding the Doe’s motives, methodology, and predict where and how he may attack next. 

This is classic stuff for Fincher, where the egoism of a fictional character is laced not only through great works of art and literature, but through religion. Here, Fincher’s egoist central character John Doe doesn’t fancy himself a mere tech genius or artistic visionary – he sees himself as God. 

The mythological realm which the film inhabits is littered with the characteristics of our world but darker, more compact, and much more violent. It’s as if the world itself was created by John Doe and now he enacts his will on it. Somerset, having toiled through the depravity of this world says he doesn’t understand it and wants to go into retirement and “get the hell away from here”. 

Se7en (New Line Cinema)
Se7en (New Line Cinema)

Mills specifically asked to be reassigned to this forsaken hellhole and ultimately gets Somerset to stay on for another case. These two are inextricably linked to Doe not only by them being on his case but by their inability and almost psychological draw to the dangerous limits of his crimes. 

The template from which many of today’s popular crime shows and movies derive their formula from can be found in the themes and dynamics of Se7en. There aren’t many movies which consist of such a pallet of ingredients that became so influential for Hollywood decades down the line. 

On rewatch, the film’s surface operates like a routine cop thriller taking the necessary twists and turns that one would expect from the unraveling of a psychologically demented serial killer case, it revealed something bigger and more sinister operating above the narrative. It’s the true blueprint story of Fincher’s oeuvre, the movie which turned him from “the guy who made Alien3” to the one guy in Hollywood who really understood how men could convince themselves they were God.

Se7en Trailer:

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