Seven (David Fincher, 1995)


Brad Pitt (David Mills), Morgan Freeman (William Somerset), Gwyneth Paltrow (Tracy Mills). Screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker. Directed by David Fincher. Rating: 18. Running time: 127 minutes.

For those that have seen Fight Club – good. For those that haven’t – sort it out if you are also to see Seven. The links between these two masterpieces may seem minimal despite the presence of Pitt and Fincher in both, but I am telling you now: the themes that dominate each film make it absolutely necessary to understand them as complimentary. One without the other is like binning a great book when you’re only half way through.

If ever Godard’s otherwise silly dictum were true about philosophers of today making movies rather than writing books, Fincher is the man to prove it. He is a philosopher as much as an artist. We are given a murder mystery here – and a groundbreakingly horrific one at that – but of utmost importance is the social criticism, implicit alienation and the condemnation of modernity that undeniably shouts out in our faces. Fincher is both an artist and a philosopher. He is carrying on the torch of Marx, Rousseau and Sartre, insistent on bringing those revolutionary ideas to life.

Of course I exaggerate, but I insist I do so only slightly. I grant that the ideas here are not new, but that is to miss the point. By representing them this way they become animated. Seven is the product of taking the Discourse on Inequality and having it struck by a lightning bolt. It’s a translation of powerful prose onto equally compelling celluloid, and if you wanted any other area in the realm of ideas made into a film, Fincher boldly and conclusively announces that he’s the man for the job.

I’ll stop gushing and flesh out these grandiose claims. Seven is about the attitudes of people to their environment, and how they all, deep down and upon reflection, see themselves to hold it in greater contempt than they would ever like to admit. It is perhaps distinctively a critique of city life, but despite the characters here ranging from an ageing detective to young couple and mad murderer, they are all united in hatred of the obvious sins: lust, greed, envy and the like.

The deal is that the mythical seven deadly sins provide an organising framework around which the murderer goes about his business: torturing the gluttonous blob of a man resigned to indulging his appetite for food; mutilating the prostitute living a life devoted to robotic sex. I could go on but you’ll see them for yourself, literally, and don’t think I joke when I say that after decades of criminal investigative films working around such a premise, this still manages to transcend the genre and pack a punch in just how graphic and repulsive the acts are. The perpetrator is Lucifer incarnate. It’s pure, unbridled evil unfolding before our eyes.

And yet Seven is undoubtedly first an argument, and only second a thriller. If you have any doubts about that, just check the rock and roll ending credits that serve to snap you out of any emotional weaknesses you express in response to what you saw. The sound of drums and heavy metal begs at you to sack off the bullshit soppiness and think, and it’s the perfect anaesthetic to let you do so.

So let’s think. Let’s think about how both detectives, Freeman playing Somerset and Pitt David Mills, pour scorn upon the state of their surroundings and are evidently sick of the attitudes of others. And then let’s think how even as they uncover the twisted but shockingly coherent agenda driving their suspect forward, they leap to label him cuckoo and cannot see how he shares their outlook.

Now obviously they may disagree on means, and nothing in hating contemporary culture commits one to taking the type of action that the antagonist does here. But what’s remarkable – and what it seems to me the film is driving at – is how we can be reluctant to, and indeed often fail to, recognise a fundamental agreement between the ‘mad’men and the average Joe. The horrible feeling arises that at least the nutcases are authentic, true to their views. The ‘normal’ people here all live in denial of just how sick they are of the banality of conversation with others and the depraved nature of everyone’s ideas of what constitutes ‘good’ living. The parallels to Fight Club should be obvious. The difference, I think, is only that Seven makes it even clearer that ‘insanity’ isn’t as fringe as we think.

Fortunately it’s not just in ideas, but also in image, in storytelling skill and style that Seven and Fight Club share qualities. There is a jaw-breakingly horrific moment that I won’t spoil, but you’ll know what I refer to as soon you experience it; a chase scene that becomes so engrossing that you lose sight of how fluidly Seven slips into temporarily being a Bourne movie; a performance by Freeman in particular so assured that it’s an eighth sin when people like me focus on anything but the acting. There are some sequences, too, so beautifully shot that as the detective’s work becomes a tour of the history of literature, we don’t know if the focus should be the words of Chaucer and Milton or the swooning shots of Freeman, gliding contemplatively by night through the public library. This all being, of course, amidst a film brimming with conversations that try to tell us that we might be madder than we think.

I don’t think Seven is as good as Fight Club, but this is no criticism. GoodFellas may trump Taxi Driver, but the latter is still cinema of a supreme quality, and the analogy is wholly accurate here. It has everything you could ever want from a film, so ditch the Friday night soaps at some point, and allow it to sweep you away.


(EDIT: I see Roger Ebert – bad now, but often great back then – completely fails to understand any of this. He writes: “A movie like this is all style… Eventually, it becomes clear that the killer’s sermon is being preached directly to the two policemen, and that in order to understand it, they may have to risk their lives and souls.” This is utter drivel. See for yourself, but I tell you: I fail to see how anyone could miss how obviously the primary purpose here is social criticism that even our protagonists are unknowingly in on.)

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