THE 100 GREATEST FILMS OF ALL TIME – 19: SE7EN

by Dan Suddes

Se7en (1995) Directed By: David Fincher  Written By: Andrew Kevin Walker  Starring: Brad Pitt Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow, R Lee Ermey, Kevin Spacey  Oscar Count: 0 (Nominated for Best Film Editing)

Se7en was the Chinatown of the nineties. It managed to deconstruct what had become the standard police drama while building so many careers in the process. Actors Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow owe their success to this film, as does director David Fincher. But so many thrillers made in the last decade have borrowed from this film that the original value almost becomes lost. Se7en still remains the quintessential thriller of the last two decades for what it was willing to even try. The fact that it succeeded in its goals makes it that much more of an important film.

The film is built around the way that detectives Somerset (Freeman) and Mills (Pitt) interact with each other and view the world. The former is a cop who feels as though he has seen it all. Nothing surprises him anymore. When investigating a crime scene, he practically defines “by the book.” Mills acts like an action hero. He is constantly swearing, constantly running, and tries to act like the cops he has seen on TV. Even the city seems designed to reflect the officer’s differences. It is always pouring rain. Mills allows it to hit him, while Somerset is never seen without his hat and raincoat. Mills is hopelessly naïve, and views people as a tool to enhance his own image. Somerset stays in the background and practically redefines “by the book.” A film about these two police officers interacting on any case would have made for a worthwhile film in and of itself.

But they have been thrust into a very unique position with the quintessential smart serial killer. John Doe is a well-read man who has taken Somerset’s weary view to a bizarre conclusion. Doe is just as exhausted with modern life as Somerset. But he is fighting back in a way that begets more violence and the wrong sort of attention. He is clearly deranged, but thinks he is a genius.  The only reason he is able to get away with his crimes is because they are so bizarre.

Many other films have emulated John Doe’s methods. The Saw franchise is based around a single scene in this film, and violence has increased in many films. But those films usually miss the point, because they fail to take into account the normal people who have to live in this world. They spend too much time worshipping the villain.Se7en is about the devolution of the hero, not the evolution of the antagonist. This is similar to Gittes journey in Chinatown. At least he never dealt with incredible gore.

It must have been very tempting to end the film with a line along the lines of “Forget it Somerset, it’s Chinatown.” The film does have the same emotional and psychological impact. It is a film that openly talks about the lack of sensitivity so much of the world has lost. Many of Se7en’s imitators think that shock value is the most important aspect of great horror. This is not true. It is society’s reaction to horrific acts and how far people are willing to go to grab attention. No other noir made in the last twenty years has come close to matching this film’s impact and influence.

It is very difficult to discuss the best scene without spoiling the film. So, I shall go with the discovery of the “Sloth” victim. First off, it is well done from a technical point of view, with realistic block and documentary style framing. But it also works in the explanation of its theme. The scene is disturbing, dark, and rather insightful into the way that the film views modern society. Violence and grotesque occurrences return to their side show like view rather than having any emotional impact. Pitt and the other cops act as though they are being filmed for prime time, and thus act as macho as humanly possible. Somerset remains in the back of the frame, trying to do what is right. Most people only remember the surprising ending of the scene, but it is one that defines the relationship between the generations of police officers – those who grew up on action movies and those who have become weary from seeing the violence play out for real.

Did You Know: There are a remarkable number of instances in which “7” occurs throughout the film. All of the building numbers begin with seven, the package at the climax is scheduled to be delivered at seven, and the first murder is discovered seven minutes into the film.

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