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SEVEN (1995) – Sight and Sound Review

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Seven (1995) Brad Pitt as detective David Mills
Seven (1995) Brad Pitt as detective David Mills

by John Wrathall

Homicide detective William Somerset is joined for his last seven days on the job by his replacement, David Mills, who has just moved to the city. When the discovery of a man who has apparently been forced to eat until he bursts (Gluttony) is followed by the bleeding to death of a rich lawyer, whose body is found with the word “GREED” written in blood on the carpet, Somerset suspects that the seven deadly sins may be providing the blueprint for a serial killer. Mills is hostile and sceptical, particularly when Somerset tells him to search for clues in Dante’s Divine Comedy, but his wife Tracy asks Somerset to dinner in an attempt to reconcile the two detectives.
Following up fingerprints left at the scene of the Greed killing, Somerset and Mills find a third victim, Sloth, who has been tied to his bed for a year until he rots (and had his hand removed to plant the fingerprints). At the scene of the crime, Mills angrily chases away a photographer. Via a contact in the FBI, who operate a clandestine programme whereby they flag books in public libraries that might appeal to criminals and keep tabs on who takes them out, Somerset gets a list of suspects; during a routine visit to the home of one of them, John Doe, Somerset and Mills are shot at. Giving chase, Mills is knocked out by Doe, who spares his life.
Back at Doe’s apartment, Somerset and Mills find photographs that prove he is the killer, including one of Mills taken at the Sloth crime scene. After the discovery of two more victims, Lust and Pride, John Doe gives himself up to Mills, saying he will only plead guilty if he is allowed to take Mills and Somerset to show them the last two victims. The two detectives drive Doe out into the desert where, at 7.00 on the seventh day, a courier delivers a package to Mills containing Tracy’s head. Doe taunts Mills about how jealous he was of his happy marriage, until Mills shoots him, making Doe the sixth sin, Envy, and himself the seventh, Wrath.

“Long is the way/and hard that out of Hell leads up to light.” To have a detective in a Hollywood thriller quoting Paradise Lost is perhaps extraordinary enough, but director David Fincher has gone further, deriving the whole look of his second feature from Milton’s dictum. Working with cinematographer Darius Khondji, with whom he made commercials in the 80s before the Frenchman made his name internationally with Delicatessen, Fincher has created the most authentically hellish screen metropolis since Gotham City, a nameless warren of damp corridors, subterranean sex joints and dilapidated tenements, where it rains all the time. Long and hard indeed is the way to light: though the film progressively lightens, it’s not until the final reel when Mills and Somerset drive Doe out into the desert that we see a scene shot in anything like daylight, and then it’s an unforgiving glare which has you blinking in shock.
The irony, of course, is that when Mills, Somerset and Doe finally reach the light, they are still very definitely in Hell. Seven has an astoundingly bleak ending which brilliantly subverts the ingrained Hollywood cliche whereby the cop, who has had it up to here with the pressures of modern city life, shoots the psycho. Don Siegel may have given the climax of Dirty Harry a negative spin by having Eastwood toss his badge into the marsh, but audiences were surely cheering when he blew away Scorpio with a celebrated quip. It’s hard to imagine even the most morally degraded audiences cheering when Mills shoots Doe, however, because Seven leaves us in no doubt that in doing so he has succumbed to Doe’s power, and is now irredeemably damned.
Fincher, remember, is the man who in his first feature managed to terminate a big box-office franchise with a “happy” ending which consisted of the heroine committing suicide to prevent herself from giving birth. Though many of the images here recall Alien3 – in particular the repeated shots of men tearing down dark corridors waving torches – Fincher seems more in control of his imagery in this film. Seven is packed with visual details which are plausible in terms of the plot, but carry a powerful abstract or symbolic charge. The hovel where the Gluttony victim has gorged himself to death on spaghetti has a Warholesque pile of cans of Clayton’s Spaghetti Sauce; more creepily, the flat where Sloth is rotting away is festooned with hundreds of those Christmas-tree shaped air fresheners. And room after room reverberates eerily with strange, Lynchian rumbles and thumps which could be bad plumbing or noisy neigh-bours.
Many of these details, or course, may derive from Andrew Kevin Walker’s inspired screenplay, which he reputedly wrote while working as a floor manager in a New York branch of Tower Records (where better to feel the city pushing you to breaking point?). Despite the sensationalist premise, which sounds a lot more formulaic in synopsis than it seems in the film, Walker’s screenplay is impressively literate. It’s tempting to speculate that the original seed of his idea was the FBI’s book-flagging programme, which might have led him to wonder how a serial killer could be tracked down through what he read.
If some of the references – to Thomas Aquinas, The Merchant Of Venice – seem a little self-conscious, Walker is also capable of sending up his own name-dropping: Mills, instructed by Somerset to immerse himself in Dante and Chaucer, buys Cliffs Notes to the texts instead, and pronounces De Sade as if the Marquis were a cousin of the singer of ‘Smooth Operator’. This is characteristic of the streak of morbid humour which runs through the whole film (asked about making the sharpened strap-on dildo with which Lust is fucked to death, an English leather goods merchant replies that he thought the customer, Doe, must be a performance artist). This droll and lugubrious tone is beautifully set by Morgan Freeman as the weary but enigmatic Somerset.
Seven‘s treatment of women, it has to be said, leaves something to be desired: the two touching early scenes in which the film seems to be going out of its way to make Mills’ wife, Tracy, a real person, leave a nasty taste when it turns out she’s just being set up as a victim. That apart, Seven has the scariest ending since George Sluizer’s original The Vanishing (Spoorloos, 1988) – with Mills only able to discover what the killer has done by becoming his victim – and stands as the most complex and disturbing entry in the serial killer genre since Manhunter.

Published in Sight and Sound, January 1996, pp. 49-50

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