Seven (1995): The Allure of Decay

Revulsion against the body haunts the new film by David Fincher as it does so much current cinema. What makes ‘Seven' distinctive? Amy Taubin explains

Amy Taubin’s article provides a comprehensive and critical analysis of David Fincher’s film Seven. Despite its grisly content, the film is described as seductive, with Fincher nearly turning a serial-killer script into a great film through his exceptional filmmaking skills. The article highlights the movie’s success at the box office, defying negative reviews from many critics, and discusses its marketing strategies, including intriguing print ads. Taubin delves into the film’s themes, noting its focus on sin, perversion, and urban decay, while critiquing its screenplay as pat and right-wing. The characters, particularly the detectives Somerset and Mills, played by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt respectively, are explored in terms of their depth and development. Taubin praises Fincher’s aesthetic choices, particularly the film’s dark visual style and effective use of silver retention processing. The article concludes with insights from an interview with Fincher, revealing his perspectives on filmmaking, the challenges in creating Seven, and his approach to violence and thematic content in the movie.

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by Amy Taubin

Despite corpses so grisly they turn the autopsy scene in The Silence of the Lambs into a pleasant memory, Seven is an overwhelmingly seductive movie. It’s not easy to make a great film out of a tacky serial-killer script, but director David Fincher comes close. And if Seven isn’t a great film (as Touch of Evil is, through and through), it is great film-making, from the Nine Inch Nails opening credits to the Bowie/Eno cut at the close. Fincher honed his techno-Romantic aesthetic on music videos, and fast cutting has nothing to do with it.

Seven opened mid-September in over 2000 theatres in the US; despite wretched reviews from most of the daily critics, it shot immediately to first place at the box office where it remained for five weeks. At the end of nine weeks, it was still in the top ten and had grossed about $85 million. Since it had been produced by mini-major New Line (now part of the Time Warner empire) for around $30 million, it’s among the most profitable films of the year.

Gambling on sin’s enduring appeal as a subject, and (given the rise of the religious right) its propitiousness, as well as on the star power of Brad Pitt, New Line mounted a lavish, last-minute marketing campaign with primetime television trailers and double-page newspaper ads. The print ads, more murky even than the movie, depicted Pitt and co-star Morgan Freeman in closeup, almost cheek-to-cheek, like a double-headed hydra. Oddly, they look more like twins than the polar opposites they are in the movie (a 60-year-old world-weary black detective, and the 30-year-old white pup who hopes to follow in his footsteps). Between them, in white lettering, a list of the seven deadly sins, each crossed off by a single stroke in red ink.

The ad was arresting. It promised a darker twist on the infallible Mel Gibson/Danny Glover Lethal Weapon coupling. But were these good guys, or villains, or one of each? Was this a horror film or a policier or a combination of the two? There was something unsettling about the way the fungal greenish-brown of the background was etched with opalescent white, like indecipherable grave rubbings. Not only did the ad spell out the hooks in the film – the stars, the theme – but it also suggested the other element that makes Seven so alluring.

Seven rubs your face in the necrophilia latent, if largely abstract, in the horror-film genre (not to mention in film itself). Like Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, Seven is a police procedural/horror hybrid in which perversion (in Freud’s terms, “the death drive”) outweighs the logic of detection. “Necrophilia is in,” said my friend, film-maker Daniel Minahan, an astute reader of the Zeitgeist. “Damien Hirst and Nine Inch Nails, it’s the last transgression.”

To get the plot out of the way (and give fair warning to squeamish viewers): Somerset (Freeman), a veteran homicide cop who’s six days from retirement, and Mills (Pitt), his eager- as-a-chipmunk replacement, are assigned to a particularly lurid murder investigation. A 500-pound man has been found naked and dead, his face in a plate of spaghetti, his hands and feet bound, a pail of vomit between his knees. He was force-fed until he burst. Before long, Somerset, the intellectual of the duo, realises that they’re up against a serial killer with a twisted biblical road-map for murder. Each of his victims personifies one of the seven deadly sins: the first victim is gluttonous, the second greedy, and so forth.

If the screenplay sounds pat, it is. It’s also pretentious, slipshod (you literally can see the dénouement coming from miles away) and as rightwing as Newt Gingrich’s natterings about New York. In Seven, man is corrupt, and cities are cesspools of contagion, spreading sin faster then TB. Forget the inequities of class or race, we’re all sinners, and urban blight is the Lord’s décor for the gates of hell. Seven may be the only movie of the year where all the cops are decent guys, trying to do the right thing in evil times. Somerset has never used his gun in 30 years, Mills has only fired his once, and both of them are completely colourblind. Mills has a wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) who’s a saint of domesticity right out of John Ford. Though she hates and fears the city, she stands by her man.

There are of course many contradictions at work here. Seven’s psychopathic killer is himself a product of religious fundamentalism and his particular brand of psychosis is as likely to be found in the rural heartland as in the city. Like most successful mass-market movies, Seven allows for multiple readings, offering something to everyone.

The film pays only the most perfunctory attention to character. The madman who fancies himself an avenging angel is no Travis Bickle or Hannibal Lecter. The narrative structure, however, has similarities to The Silence of the Lambs, though it’s missing the crucial figure of Lecter. The killer-du-jour doesn’t appear on screen until halfway through the movie, and as in Lambs, he’s more confused and pathetic than frightening, less a subjectivity than a cliche of psychopathology. Pitt’s Mills is less dedicated and less intelligent than Jodie Foster’s Clarice, and of course there’s no gender disruption at work here. If there’s anything approaching a fully drawn character, it’s Freeman’s Somerset, Mills’ reluctant mentor, the worldweary detective with a humanist’s understanding of history. Somerset knows he’s no match for the evil that’s taking over. All he can do is stand by, grave and powerless. A witness rather than an action hero, he’s our point of identification.

In Seven, the detectives never get the better of the killer. They’re two steps behind him to the very end. There’s almost no violence enacted on the screen. All we see is the end products of violence – butchered bodies, rotting flesh. Its director is an aesthetician of rot and entropy. If Seven lacks the mythic underpinnings of his first feature Alien3, its ambience is even more overwhelming. Every frame seems saturated with despair. His concrete sense of place is the cornerstone of his directing talent. Working with production designer Arthur Max, who developed his apocalyptic style as a stage lighting designer for Pink Floyd and Genesis, and cinematographer Darius Khondji, who’s currently shooting for Bertolucci, Fincher brings forth an acrid vision of post-industrial decay – all dank greens and browns, the light filtered through pelting rain and smog so yellow you can taste it. The walls are peeling, the dust is thick, the clutter is out of control. If not for a couple of already obsolete computer terminals in the police station, you might think you were in a 30s depression picture or a 40s noir. In any event, it looks as if things have been spiralling downhill since the time motion pictures were invented.

Fincher favours set-ups so dark that Freeman would become the invisible man if not for the hits of light off his cheekbones; while Pitt’s face is as chalky as a corpse’s. Seven was processed through silver retention, a seldom-used method whereby the silver that’s leeched out during conventional processing is rebonded. Silver retention produces more luminosity in the light tones and more density in the darks, but it is so time consuming, not to mention expensive, that neither film labs nor producers want to get involved. Only a few hundred of the more than 2,500 prints of Seven in distribution are silver retention, which means that you may never see the film I am writing about. Fincher says that he and Khondji built the film around blackness and that it’s unbelievably depressing for him to look at the non-silver retention prints. “They’re so milked out, it’s as if you have glaucoma.”

Seven literalises the struggle of bringing things to light. As in his video for Aerosmith’s ‘Janie’s Got a Gun’, Fincher loves the look of flashlights penetrating obscure and terrifying places. The film hits its stride halfway through, with a chase scene so dark that we can’t tell one good guy from the other, let alone good from bad. It’s nothing but shadows and silhouettes hurtling through crumbling corridors, down the sides of a rain-drenched building, into an alley that’s as ominous as one in a classic noir. Alien3 all but fell apart in the clumsy chase scenes through the bowels of the prison. Here, Fincher manages the near-impossible feat of sustaining tension and suggesting spatial continuity even when we can’t tell where we are or who’s who.

There’s an across-the-board revulsion for the body in this movie, not just for the marbled, putrefying flesh of the dead. Even in closeups, Fincher keeps an uneasy distance (he favours low-angled shots, rather than eye-of-God overheads). The camera (often handheld or on a steadicam) sometimes seems to float, sometimes seems dragged as if by an undertow. The extremely shallow focus is a way of controlling the viewer’s eye, making you look at what you don’t want to see and suggesting that there’s something worse that you just can’t get a grip on lurking on the periphery.

While Seven is most distinguished by its camerawork, Fincher also has stunning control over the rhythm and pace of individual scenes (his choice of angles is always surprising), and over the film’s general shape, which is very erotic in its rises and falls. This shapeliness is much abetted by Howard Stone’s score, even darker than the one he did for The Silence of the Lambs.

Fincher doesn’t hide his sources. Seven is blatantly reminiscent not only of The Silence of the Lambs, but of Ulu Grosbard’s underrated True Confessions, and of Robert Frank’s photobook The Americans. (Frank has become as much a reference point for American film-makers as Edward Hopper once was.) In the game of aesthetic one-up-manship, Fincher’s ploy is to maintain clinical detachment while heightening the visceral quality of his imagery. The dead in Seven have met with very bad ends. If we are fascinated by their remains, it’s because Fincher is so good at suggesting that there is nothing to prevent us from winding up just like them.

Fincher is like a Baudelairean aesthete in reverse: a modernist with stunning control over the great modernist medium, abandoning himself to romanticism, finding beauty in rotting corpses and reeking cities. Forget the puerile genre script: Seven is, beginning to end, as lush and lyrical a film as ever came out of Hollywood. Watching Mills and Somerset chase the killer, leaping and staggering through shafts of light diffused through centuries of dust, one thinks of Jacques Tourneur and Louis Feuillade (the almost monochromatic colour cinematography has the density of black and white). But Fincher not only moulds space with light, he shapes time with it too. Every time a shot changes, the light streaming softly from a window or a lamp hits the eye like a muffled drumbeat. “Edgar Poe loves to set his figures in action against greenish or purplish backgrounds, in which we can glimpse the phosphorescence of decay and sniff the coming storm,” wrote Baudelaire. If Fincher wants to get down to cases, he should make Poe’s The Mystery of Marie Roget.

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David Fincher says he’d rather do an interpretative dance than give interviews. He claims he’s only done three – one for Premiere magazine after Alien3, “because they told me that if I didn’t, they would blame me alone for its failure,” and two immediately after Seven opened. What follow are excerpts from a phone interview in September, on the day most of the reviews of Seven came out, when the fate of the film was still uncertain.

In his mid-thirties, Fincher was born in California, fell in love early with movies, never attended college, taking a job instead, in an animation house, when he was 18. He worked for George Lucas’ special-effects company Industrial Light and Magic, and began his directing career with commercials and music videos.

He is a co-founder of the ultra-hip production company Propaganda Films. His first feature Alien3 (1992) was a commercial disaster – although a few people, including me, counted it among the best films of the year.

“There’s no one who hated Alien3 more than I did,” he says. “The movie I set out to do, the one in my head, was so different from what got made. I got hired for a personal vision and was railroaded into something else.

I had never been devalued or lied to or treated so badly. I wasn’t used to adults lying to me. I didn’t read a script for a year and a half after that, I thought I’d rather die of colon cancer than do another movie. Then I read Seven and I thought there’s something so perverse about this.

Seven is the first time I got to carry through certain things about the camera – and about what movies are or can be. It came out of left-field, with this little twist on genre. I never thought New Line would get behind it and promote it the way they are. I thought I was malting a tiny genre movie, the kind of movie Friedkin might have made after The Exorcist, a little handheld hippie movie. I tried hard not to have a hundred fucking trucks, but every time you take the camera out of the box, it gets complicated.

“Just in terms of the decisions with Darius [Khondji], we wanted to do something immediate and simple. We started with Cops, the television show – how the camera is in the backseat peering over people’s shoulder, like the runt following after the pack, a vulnerable position.

“Staging to me is everything. That’s the whole game – where do you place the window? Darius and I talked about, psychologically, where we wanted to be in any given room. We decided we wouldn’t build any flyaway walls. If the kitchen is only 12 feet, then hem him in. We live in an age when anything is possible, so it’s always important to limit yourself. It’s important the blinders you put on, what you won’t say. I wanted to take an adult approach – not, ‘Oh wow, a Luma crane’.

“The movie cost $15 million below the line. We wanted to shoot in Oakland. Beautiful clapboard houses. But we didn’t have enough time. So it’s all downtown LA. The reason it rains all of the time is that we only had Brad Pitt for 55 days, with no contingency. So we did it to stay on schedule, because we knew that if it ever really rained we would have been fucked.

“I never thought it was a violent movie. I was afraid people wouldn’t respond viscerally. It all takes place after the scene where we see the killer stalking someone – she’s in the shower, he’s outside the window… But the thing I found gripping about the script is the connect-the-dots aspect. It’s a connect-the-dots movie that delivers about inhumanity. It’s psychologically violent. It implies so much, not about why you did but how you did it. It has this element of evil that’s realistic, But I didn’t want people to say, ‘Isn’t this the grisliest thing you ever saw?’ What grosses me out is violence you’re supposed to cheer for.

“At the premiere in New York, I could feel that people were stunned. I guess I’m just a warped fuck, but I never saw it that way. At the LAPD, they have files of photographs that they pull out and show you. A guy shot in the head and his brains unravelled like shoe strings. If you took the pictures and put them in a movie no one would believe you.

“I didn’t set out to piss off the people who are upset. I was told that Michael Medved [the ultra-rightwing critic at the New York Post – AT] wrote that the movie was evil, but I’m sure he slows down when he passes an accident just like everyone else. Death fascinates people, but they don’t deal with it. In Joel Peter Witkin’s photographs, it’s demonic to see people without muscles to hold their face in place, but it’s also peaceful: I wanted people to know there are stakes.”

Read here the review by John Wrathall

Published in Sight and Sound, January 1996, pp. 22-24


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