David Fincher’s bleak, gruesome murder mystery packed a punch audiences have never forgotten.
Hey, Se7en is still pretty fucked up, right? Even 25 years after it was released it still has the ability to upset and unsettle and shock, which is a hard thing to do. Lots of shocking movies lose their mojo as time passes and tastes change, and what seems dangerous and creepy to one generation often seems silly and kitschy to the next. Se7en is one of the exceptions.
It manages to pull that off by both embracing and subverting the well-worn tropes of genre filmmaking. It uses the audience’s own familiarity with those tropes to create a false confidence that it ultimately undermines. Audiences expected Se7en to be scary, but they expected it to be fun scary, the kind of scary that makes you jump and then makes you laugh at yourself for jumping. It was supposed to be another cinematic geek show, filled with freaks and weirdos to gawk at, and then never be thought about again. That’s not what they got.
On paper, Se7en reads like an almost comically anonymous Edgy Nineties Thriller, something that might have been pitched to Griffin Mill in The Player. Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is a week away from retirement when he and his new partner, David Mills (Brad Pitt) are called to the scene of the grisly murder of an obese shut-in forced to eat until his stomach ruptures. It’s a sad and brutal crime, and one that offers no clues or leads.
Believing there won’t be a tidy resolution to the case, and not wanting to spend his last week as a cop helplessly cataloging the details of a monstrous killing, Somerset unsuccessfully tries to get reassigned. Mills, on the other hand, is more than eager to take on the challenge. When the body of a successful lawyer forced to cut off a pound of his own flesh is discovered the next day, Somerset and Mills are forced to conclude that they’re chasing a madman.
It uses the audience’s own familiarity with those tropes to create a false confidence that it ultimately undermines.
So far, so goofy. There are the two detectives, a weary professional on the verge of retirement and his new partner, a brash hothead looking for action. They have to put aside their philosophical differences to identify and capture a maniac. The killer is inspired by the seven deadly sins, a suitably macabre gimmick to gin-up a bunch of theatrical murders and creepy crime scenes. Everything about Se7en suggested it would be a shallow, flashy, silly thriller. A B- Silence of the Lambs crossed with Halloween and a dash of Lethal Weapon mismatched buddy-cop thrown in for a few yuks. This is the framework used to deliver one of the great cinematic sucker punches of the 90’s.
What makes it such a remarkably unsettling movie is less about what it does and more about what it doesn’t. The appeal of these stories is in how the unsettling specifics of the plot are weighed against the more reassuring elements of the basic formula. They present an ordered world thrown into disorder by some rogue element, and then provides a hero who uses their skill and resources to restore that order. But that’s not a thing here, because the movie refuses to reassure the audience. We’re used to seeing proactive invested heroes chasing down leads and profiling the killer and whatnot, but the detectives in Se7en aren’t very good at their jobs. No one finds a clue that breaks the case wide open, and there’s no glimpse into the villain’s psychology to explain how he got that way. It’s comforting to think that evil can be understood and catalogued. No one gets any smarter in Se7en, no lessons are learned.
Beyond the impotent detectives, Se7en presents an entire culture that’s incapable of enforcing its own laws. There are no super competent crime labs or cutting edge technology to assist Somerset and Mills. The desks at the station have rickety typewriters, and what few computers there are look decades out of date. There are no cell phones or internet or emails to assist or speed up the investigation. In fact, the only time the detectives get any kind of jump on the killer is by illegally tracing the books he got out of the library.
Movies like this have rules that audiences rely on to reassure them even as they’re being frightened. The superior resources and organization of the heroes reinforce the ultimate strength of order in the face of disorder. By disregarding that rule, Se7en constantly, subtly reminds the audience that the problems of the culture are much more deeply rooted than just this one case. Much like that rain the pours onto the city throughout the film, failure saturates every facet of this world. It’s in the people, in the institutions, and in the technology. It’s inescapable.
Then there’s the ending, which you either know and will never forget, or, if you don’t, no specific spoilers here. Suffice to say that order is not restored at the end, and the good guys don’t ride off into the sunset. In fact, the goals of the heroes and villains end up lining up in a sickly satisfying way that underlines the systemic rot that the previous two hours of genre subversion have been suggesting. Things can go all sorts of haywire in a story as long as at the end all the pieces are where they’re supposed to be and Good triumphs over Evil. Norman Bates is in custody, Clarice Starling gets her man, Jason or Freddy or whoever have vanquished once again.
That’s the deal with these kinds of mainstream movies, and that’s the deal that Se7en relentlessly undermines, from its opening scene to its weird backwards running credits. But that’s what we came for, right? Like the man forced to eat himself to death, Se7en just keeps giving us more and more and more and more until we explode. And honestly, at that point, it feels like the merciful thing to do.