Weekend Movie Picks is a segment at Shoton35.com, where every 2 weeks on Friday I will pick a movie that’s shot on 35mm film and tell you something about it.
| Two detectives, a rookie and a veteran, hunt a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as his modus operandi.
Directed by David Fincher and drawn from a script by Andrew Kevin Walker, “Se7en” is perhaps one of the most unsettling, most gruesome and most unforgettable thrillers to come from the 90’s. Giving even “The Silence of the Lambs” a run for its money, Fincher’s film is chock full of moody atmosphere and gloomy set-pieces. Rarely do the two detectives stumble into a brightly lit room, and the rain that plagues their nondescript, crime-filled city refuses to let up until the killer is revealed. Coming off of the troubled production that was “Alien 3,” Fincher was given a second shot, and with this film, defines a style all his own that had been plagiarized to death by the turn of the century. The cinematography and ambient direction are fresh for its time and hold up today – at 22 years old, the film still looks stunning – and serves up a truly unique experience.
David Fincher has been lauded as some sort of technical genius recently, especially with his incredible work in the Social Network, but at the time of making Se7en, his reputation was somewhat different. After a long line of music videos, Fincher finally made the move in the movie world with the disappointing Alien 3. Basically, it was time to prove himself. All it takes is the opening credits sequence to do so. Set to a Nine Inch Nails remix, the credits themselves set the mood and tone for the rest of the film brilliantly. Fincher originally intended to open the film with scenes of Detective Somerset visiting a home in the country and taking the train back. But when Fincher had to screen a rough cut for studio executives, he needed some filler. That’s when he called Kyle Cooper, a Yale graduate who created a kinetic opening montage of John Doe’s journals. The New York Times hailed Cooper’s work as a step forward in filmmaking; the designer would go on to high-profile projects including the Spider-Man series and Dawn of the Dead. His work was so compelling, director Zack Snyder once said that some directors refuse to use him because he “makes title sequences better than the movie.” Which I thought was a quite funny quote coming from Snyder… (Yeah, I just went there… Sue me).
“Seven was just a gripping yarn and I just felt like I hadn’t seen this movie and I hadn’t seen a movie that was kind of professing to be the procedural that became this other thing. I thought it was a structural… you know, it was as impressive to me that Kevin Spacey would show up spattered with blood at the two hour point of that movie as it is that Janet Leigh gets slashed to death in the shower in Psycho. It was such a different way to spin that top. So that was amazing.”
– David Fincher
Fincher creates a Blade Runner-esque noir feel to a crumbling city which, lacking a physical evildoer, becomes the villain against Mills and Somerset’s dual protagonists. Fincher, whilst living in his previous movies’ shadow, isn’t afraid to make some bold choices in terms of shooting, working with some disorienting handheld shots to great effect and beautifully obscuring his villain until the reveal. He may not have been the virtuoso that he is now but it’s an incredible starting point. Despite the urge to occasionally close-in on a gory set-piece, Fincher restrains from gratuity in many cases, preferring to let our minds do the work that the production team doesn’t. The fact that we don’t actually see any of the killings is tribute to this fact, but what Fincher shows us in the aftermath is more shocking than any amount of violence alone could do. Fincher also makes sure to focus on the relationships of the piece. The ending being the way it is, it wouldn’t work if the emotional connection to the viewer hadn’t been set up in the first place. Fincher does this with incredible precision without sacrificing his films grimy tone. It truly is a masterful piece of directing which only began to show his potential for films to come.
The genius of Se7en is rooted in the way the movie keeps the audience as clueless as the detectives. Normally in genre pictures such as this, we either know who the killer is and eagerly wait for the investigators to put the pieces together, or we have a line-up of suspects and red herrings to decide from. Here, apart from brief glimpses during a thrilling chase scene, we are devoid of clues. The killer is always one step ahead of Somerset and Mills, alluding to the idea that the mysterious ‘John Doe’ is indeed having his work guided by a higher power. Of course, he is not, he is merely a man, but this helps giving Se7en a dramatic weight, rather than it becoming a nihilistic exercise in cruelty.
Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker was a graduate of Penn State’s film program. Several years later, however, he was no closer to achieving his goal of working in the industry. Making ends meet at a New York City Tower Records store, Walker was so depressed that he wrote a bleak and oppressive script about the hunt for a killer who uses the seven deadly sins as inspiration for his crimes. His script is at once sympathetic and diabolical, especially in the way that it knowingly sets the viewer up to be crushed towards the end.
“First, a company called Penta optioned it in concert with Phyllis Carlyle, who was a manager, and then optioned it for Jeremiah Chechik, who was the director of Christmas Vacation. The first part of the process was me doing a massive rewrite, just obediently rewriting it and vastly changing the script for Jeremiah, and he really did make it very different and the ending was completely different. There was no head in the box. I do thank God that version of it never got made because it would have been a very different path for me in my life. But after that option period went by and New Line acquired it, I remember very specifically the first time I went to Anne Kopelson’s office and sat down with this director, David Fincher, who I had only known as the director of Alien 3. And Fincher, in every possible way, completely changed my life, including allowing me to participate in the creative process.”
– Andrew Kevin Walker
Walker has an incredible depth of emotion and knack for realistic dialogue which achieves much more impact into the story. The dialogue between Mills and Somerset is beautifully written, achieving a realistic relationship between the two without rushing it along. The natural evolution of a working relationship to start with, then to a true friendship is a brilliant achievement by Walker. It would be easy to shoehorn these two characters into something easily recognisable and clichéd for the sake of time, but it’s much more rewarding to see it play out the way it does. The two character Walker brings to life are intricately layered and filled with nuance, even while still on the page. You can read and download the screenplay down here.
The two detectives enjoy an uneasy relationship with no real friendship ever striking up between them. The older Somerset is educated, astute and gives the impression of being emotionally burnt out. Mills, who has no respect for Somersets methodical investigating gets excited at the thought of solving a murder and firmly believes that the good guys will win eventually. The further we get into the action, the might of the evil that they face pushes both men beyond their limits. Detective William Somerset, originally written with John Hurt in mind, is played excellently by Morgan Freeman, who utilizes his iconic warm, yet authoritative voice to the best of his capabilities as the grizzled, veteran detective who has to ease his replacement, Detective David Mills, into his position. In my opinion, Brad Pitt was at his best between 1994 and 2000 (Twelve Monkeys, Se7en, Fight Club, Sleepers, 7 Years in Tibet, Interview with a Vampire and Snatch). He plays Mills amazingly as a fast-talking, witty young hotshot detective, and both Freeman and Pitt have that natural chemistry, as the actors play off their actual difference in age and talent – one is a young hotshot actor, and the other is a veteran, experienced actor – to their advantage when portraying their characters.
Darius Khondji’s cinematography is planned out in detail, shot by shot, to create a piece of art. The lighting and sets reflect the nature of the city and the murders that take place. It consists of dominating shadows, icy cold colors, and a overpouring of rain. This approach is intended to create this world of sin, kind of like a dark pit that can consume all of the faith and light in our souls. I don’t think it is a direct influence but films like Blade Runner may have influenced the use of rain in this film, as both films seem to touch on aspects of society and both use it as a tool in creating the setting as a character of its own. The film also uses low angles when the film shows the detectives together. This was to create a form of irony, as detectives are meant to always be ahead of the game and rarely show signs of fear and vulnerability, but our characters are heavily flawed and they never gain an opportunity to be one step ahead of the antagonist. Fincher wanted shots to drag on in order to create tension and to control the pace.
The sound and the soundtrack of Howard Shore is not just good, but so fitting and so well done that it actually enhances the experience of the movie, something I feel sound and music are supposed to do in movies – and not just in the simple and cheap way tension music does it in so many thrilled and horror movies. Both the sound and music go in and interact with the visuals (or the other way around) on just about all situations in the movie. Like the very first scene, where we see Somerset in his kitchen, where the ambient sound actually goes in and gives us audio clues to the surroundings and situation.
‘Se7en’ is a masterfully directed film with fantastic performances. It’s my favourite Fincher movie and it’s a must see if you are a fan of crime thrillers with a tenge of horror. It’s well written, smart, disturbing, full of tension, and has a finale that keeps you on the edge of your seat.