I was eleven when Seven hit theaters. I remember seeing the trailer and being very interested in it. I liked Morgan Freeman, because he was in Unforgiven, and I liked scary cop thrillers. My mother didn’t usually like those movies, but for some reason she went and saw this one without me. When I found out, I asked how it was and if she would take me. Her answer was an emphatic “no.” By this time it was not uncommon for me to see R rated movies, having grown up on a steady diet of Shwartzenegger and Stallone bloodlettings, so I felt justified in asking why not. “It shows humanity at its worst,” she replied, and that was the end of the argument. It took me maybe two or three years after that before I managed to get my hands on a VHS copy of the movie. After watching it, I had to admit she had a point. Twenty years later, after countless repeat viewings, I still find myself amazed that a film so relentlessly grim and brutal gained such acceptance from mainstream audiences.
Seven came along at an opportune time. The runaway success of Silence of the Lambs in 1992 in tandem with the rise of tabloid journalism brought on a strange national fascination with serial killers, creating a cinematic sub genre in the process. The 90s saw a rash of serial killer movies from the forgettable (Copycat), to the execrable (Kiss the Girls), to the just plain bizarre (Freeway). But these other films were for the most part rote exercises in genre, none of them had the artistic ambition of Seven, and none of them had that unforgettable ending.
Even people who haven’t seen Seven very likely know how it ends. The film has become iconic in the years since its release and most of that is due to the endless parodies, memes, and hacky impressions of Brad Pitt’s line reading in the end sequence. What gets lost in all that fake irony is how remarkable the beginning is. Seven has one of the best and most influential title sequences in cinema history. Judged by itself it appears to be an unusually disturbing music video, but when you see it in relation to the rest of the film you realize what an economical storytelling device it is. The credit sequence is the only glimpse we have into the life of John Doe before he turns himself in and it gives us as much insight into the way he sees the world as anything Kevin Spacey does onscreen.
One of the pivotal elements that allows a film this bleak to be so re-watchable is the ease we feel in the presence of our two main characters, and how much we enjoy the unease they feel with each other. On the surface Mills and Somerset could look like a cheap Lethal Weapon knockoff. We have the older, wizened black detective paired with a hot headed young white guy and they initially dislike and distrust one another. But where the Lethal Weapon series treats Martin Riggs’ emotional problems as one more way to emphasize Mel Gibson’s sex appeal, this film shows Mills’ inability to control himself as reflective of his immaturity and denseness. Somerset may eventually grow to respect and even feel a grudging affection for Mills, but that doesn’t change the fact that every one of his initial misgivings about him proves absolutely correct. Mills is shortsighted, rash, stubborn, and insecure, ignoring Somerset’s repeated warnings not to underestimate John Doe.
Mills is ultimately saved from our and Somerset’s contempt by two things: the fact that Tracey loves him and his tragically unsophisticated idealism. Though we see but little of Tracey, she is positioned as such a virtuous character that her endorsement of Mills holds weight with the audience. We know she is too good to love a bad man. By the same token, as ill-suited as Mills is for this case, we can’t help but be charmed by his earnest desire to do good. Part of what makes him so ineffectual in pursuing John Doe is how much he loathes him. Despite Somerset’s advice that they must be unemotional, Mills can’t help but hate a man who could inflict such cruelty. When they first meet, Somerset’s initial reaction to Mills is shock that he went out of his way to be reassigned to the unnamed city in which the movie is set. No one chooses to go to this hellish place. Mills’ only response is that he “thought I could do some good.” Part of Mills immaturity is his refusal to let the evidence of the world around him disabuse him of the childlike notion that it’s up to the good guys to fight the bad guys, that a decent guy like him should be “doing good.” Somerset is old and smart enough to know that’s not how it works, but still can’t help but be envious of the younger man’s uncomplicated sureness of purpose.
The grace with which this film establishes Somerset’s intelligence is rarely credited. In most movies, if you want the audience to know one of your characters is smart, you show them through external means. The character is seen doing complex math equations, or remembering obscure details, the way you show a superhero is strong by having them lift a bus. Somerset’s intelligence becomes clear to us because he spends the film behaving as an intelligent person would. He takes the information available to him and reasons through all the possibilities until he arrives at the correct answer. When he realizes the murders are congruent with the seven deadly sins his first instinct is to go to a library to do research. His approach to catching John Doe is as careful and methodical as Doe himself is in the planning of the murders.
That we don’t knowingly see Kevin Spacey until the last act grants his entrance all the more impact, and he dominates the final half hour of run time. A lot hinges on Spacey’s performance here. As well constructed as everything up to this point has been, the whole thing falls apart if John Doe rings false. Spacey somehow manages to command our attention every second he is onscreen without giving us a glorified, charismatic psychopath. John Doe is no serial killer James Bond like Hannibal Lecter, he is more like Travis Bickle with the addition of fifty IQ points. Look at the way Doe shakes back and forth in his carseat like a child as Somerset drives closer and closer to the inevitable delivery of the box, or the peevishness that Spacey brings to his voice as he grows indignant at the description of his victims as “innocent.” There’s a stunted, geeky quality to the way Spacey plays Doe that precludes us from romanticizing him, leaving us repulsed at the image of a friendless child fully grown.
The studio tried several times to soften to ending, prompting both Fincher and his two leads to threaten walking off the project. It’s difficult to imagine the film having the lasting impact that it has if the story had resolved in any other way. John Doe has to win. The world Fincher gives us makes it inevitable. Necessary, even. But I still start to get tense whenever I’m watching the movie and I see that valley of tumble weeds and cable towers. More than once I’ve stopped it there, telling myself I’ll watch to the end next time. I’ve made fun of Brad Pitt’s child turn in this scene as much as the next guy, but the truth is nothing he does makes the scene any less devastating, or takes any bite away from the way John Doe laughs at his own cruelty when he realizes Mills hadn’t known about Tracey’s pregnancy. And whatever you may think of the way he delivers his dialogue, Pitt’s silent look of utter ruination as he sits in the police cruiser after killing Doe is completely believable.
After the debacle of Alien3, David Fincher was convinced he would never make another feature film. It was an odd and unlikely set of circumstances that aligned to put him at the helm of a thriller written by a Tower records employee that studio execs had taken to calling “the head in a box movie.” The result launched him to the status of modern auteur and gave us arguably the greatest American thriller of the 1990s. While Fincher went on to make a number of other brilliant films, Seven remains perhaps the tightest, most elegant, fully realized and aesthetically consistent thing he’s ever done. And if nothing else, it forever changed the way we look at a cardboard box.