Se7en (1995)

reviewed by
Kevin Patterson


Film review by Kevin Patterson
SE7EN
Rating: ***1/2 (out of four)
R, 1995
Director: David Fincher
Screenplay: Andrew Kevin Walker
Starring Cast: Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow

I'm going to begin this review by explaining that when I saw SE7EN on video, I watched about the first 30 minutes, was interrupted for about another 30 minutes, then resumed and watched the remaining hour and a half. Why, you may wonder, am I telling you this? Well, because it's put me in a bit of a pickle: I found much to admire about the film, and looking back on it, I can see how all the different scenes fit together into a coherent whole. My gut reaction, however, was that it still felt kind of disjointed. One side of me says I should go with my gut reaction. The other side says, "Well of course it felt disjointed, you quit watching the thing for half an hour in the middle!" As you've probably guessed from the rating, I've decided to give SE7EN the benefit of the doubt, so I'll spend most of the review explaining why I think it's actually a better film than it seemed to be while I was watching it.

SE7EN tells the story of David Mills (Brad Pitt), a young homicide detective working his first case in a new precinct under the tutelage of retiring veteran William Sommerset (Morgan Freeman). The case is a particularly horrifying set of serial killings, each murder meant to punish someone for one of the seven deadly sins. The murderer is clearly intelligent and deliberate, killing each victim in a way that symbolizes his or her sin. An obese man is punished for Gluttony by death through force-feeding, a drug dealer is punished for Sloth by being tied to a bed and left to waste away, a model is punished for Pride by the disfigurement of her face, and a prostitute is punished for Lust by . . . well, on second thought, I don't really want to talk about that one. Suffice it to say that all of these scenes are shocking and gruesome, some a little too much so: while a certain amount of this is necessary if one is to take this subject matter seriously, there are a couple of scenes in which director David Fincher really shows us more than we need to see.

At the core of SE7EN is the relationship between the two detectives. Mills is a cool, arrogant young cop who's comfortable investigating horrifying murders during the day and still cheerfully going home to his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) and roughhousing on the floor with his hyperactive dogs. Somerset, we sense, lets these things get to him: his manner is usually very somber and morose, and from what we can tell, he lives a solitary and subdued home life. Mills writes off the killer, whom we only ever know as "John Doe," as a simple lunatic, while Somerset warns that this is a dangerous underestimation and instead tries to understand how the killer's mind works. And when it becomes clear what exactly the killer is up to, Somerset goes to the library and reads Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy. Mills, on the other hand, settles for the Cliff's Notes. Slowly but surely, SE7EN emerges as a compelling argument for Somerset's approach, suggesting that one must accept the horror for what it is before one can really defend oneself against it. The two detectives are put through a gut-wrenching moral test at the end, and we find that it is Somerset who keeps his cool and Mills who discovers that he's a little closer to the "lunatic" than he ever would have imagined.

The only noticeable flaw in SE7EN aside from the occasionally excessive gore is that the screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker doesn't quite have a handle on the killer. He's obviously a religious fanatic of sorts, and he seems to believe his fire-and-brimstone sermons about sin and corruption. On the other hand, the games he plays with Mills and Somerset seems to indicate that he subscribes to the idea of "the devil is inside all of us," which is a strange ideology for someone who issues such venomous condemnations of others. I also found it a little odd that someone with his personality would even indulge in the stereotypical serial killer routine of taunting the authorities. The character is certifiably 100% insane, of course, so it may be a mistake to insist on too much logic in his behavior, and I must admit that I am probably fairly picky when it comes to serial killer stories, having watched Fox's "Millennium" and NBC's "Profiler" for the past three years. Still, it might not have hurt to make the method to his madness a little more consistent and focused.

David Fincher does an excellent job holding all this together, instilling SE7EN with a consistent feeling of dread to accompany the disturbing story. His moody visual style, which he would later put to use in THE GAME, is a large part of what makes SE7EN work, and his direction is remarkably effective and sure-handed, especially considering that his only previous experience had been on the reportedly chaotic production of Alien 3. While I must admit to being somewhat puzzled as to the masterpiece status this film has been accorded on numerous Internet web sites, it's a very successful film that tackles challenging subject matter without flinching and yet still manages to be human.

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