Se7en: The Sins of David Fincher


The origins of Frank Underwood’s killer instincts.

Se7en best represents the work of David Fincher – both his strengths and indelible weaknesses. Like in all his movies, it presents a masterfully designed product suffused with icy elegance. And like in several of his movies, the story and characters pander more to our basic desire for action than our greater need for substance. Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt’s collective star power can’t save this from sliding into disappointing mediocrity.

Se7en opens on an unnamed, Gotham-esque American metropolis, where Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is a week away from retiring from a job he sees as increasingly useless in the face of rising crime. For his final case, he and rookie James Mills (Brad Pitt) are tasked with a group of murders patterned on the seven deadly sins – a fat man is killed by being fed to death (gluttony), a lawyer is killed after losing a pound of flesh (greed). Initially, Somerset’s introverted, bookish personality clashes with Mills’ hot-headedness, sparking tensions that at one point push Somerset to quit the entire investigation. As the week goes on, however, the sin-based crimes continue to strike, and Somerset, against his better judgment, finds himself being drawn back into a game he’s waited 35 years to leave. What happens hardly gives him any fond memories to cherish off the field.

Even after 21 years, the effort Fincher put into making Se7en continues to stand out. He rejects excessive gore in favor of only showing the aftermath of every murder, cleverly giving the viewer’s imagination free rein to imagine the details for itself. The camerawork liberally twists lighting and angles to bring out all the squalor of the underworld Somerset and Mills work in, a sinister realm of depravity no person or place is completely immune from. The editing ably balances long, eerily relaxing sequences with lightning bursts of suspense. And the shocking final scene provides a fitting close to a story defined by the bleakness of the society it portrays.

Unfortunately, the movie expends so much energy on such details that it has nothing left for the performances, which almost universally fall flat. As hard as he tries, Morgan Freeman can’t get rid of his Morgan Freeman persona – the unflappable voice of wisdom who’s seen everything the world has to offer. Except at the very end, Brad Pitt plays a discounted version of his punky character in Fight Club, tough-talking and impudent but annoyingly surface. Kevin Spacey, the bad guy, ends up being little more than a remake of Hannibal Lecter without Lecter’s fascinating charm. And Gwyneth Paltrow, the only performer who does a decent job, barely gets 15 minutes on screen. It’s a series of banal interpretations that fill their basic roles but do little else to advance Fincher’s cause.

Then there’s the story itself, which never manages to develop its own potential. Fincher wants to push you to reflect on society’s ills and the flaws in human nature, but he often gives in to the temptation of making the movie a perverse, superficial game of “How Messed-Up Can He Go?” Spacey’s crimes appear deliberately designed to continually outdo each other in shock factor, a scheme that, however well-made, doesn’t impart much of a message beyond a basic “People are really screwed up.” It’s similar to what Fincher did in Fight Club – take a premise with some dark, possibly intriguing ideas about human nature or society and then sweep it aside in favor of engaging but comparatively empty action. At some points, you might even feel like Freeman and Pitt are deliberately holding back just so Spacey gets a chance to complete his dramatic spectacle. The thrills are all here, but their underlying roots simply never get the chance to grow.

On balance, Se7en is worth a watch. Fincher’s technical skill is as strong as always, and the ending is definitely a moment worth savoring. Yet the plot and acting generally make for an un-nuanced, simplistic story many movies, TV shows, and books have by now treated with both greater depth and dexterity. No matter how intense the action gets, odds are that you’ll walk away from this movie wondering how it got its sky-high 8.6 IMDb rating. Even masters were beginners once – and for a guy who’s now capable of making things like The Social Network and Gone Girl, the feats Fincher pulls in this early endeavor just aren’t up to par.

Se7en (1995)

Starring: Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, Gwyneth Paltrow

Running Time: 127 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Produced by: Arnold Kopelson, Phyllis Carlyle

Directed by: David Fincher

Written by: Andrew Kevin Walker

Image of Spacey from here.