Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is a thoughtful man on the verge of retirement and clearly tired of the uncaring city he is forced to protect. His early retirement is a way out, an escape from this horrible place that keeps him awake at night with its noises of people yelling, blaring sirens, and incessant traffic. As the film begins, he is assigned a new partner and a new case. David Mills (Brad Pitt) is a young, up-and-coming detective who is energetic and hopeful — everything that Somerset is not.
The case starts off simply enough: an extremely obese man is found dead in his squalid apartment. It seems that the man had been force fed at gunpoint. At first,
Seven's origins lie in a screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker, whose previous credits include a string of forgettable films like Brainscan (1994) and Hideaway (1995). To his credit, these scripts were altered significantly by other people to the point where they barely resembled his original idea. This is all changed with Seven, which remained relatively untouched throughout the entire production. Even the downbeat ending was not changed, thanks in large part to the influence of the film's two big stars, Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, and the film's director, David Fincher, who insisted that the ending was not to be changed in any way.
The primary influence for the Seven's screenplay came from
After the Alien 3 (1992) debacle, Fincher did not read a script for a year and a half. He said, “I thought I’d rather die of colon cancer than do another movie.” He was drawn to
Fincher turned to production designer Arthur Max to create a dismal world that often eerily mirrors its inhabitants. "We created a setting that reflects the moral decay of the people in it," says Max. "Everything is falling apart, and nothing is working properly." The film's brooding, dark look was also created through a unique chemical process whereby the silver in the film stock was re-bonded which in turn deepened the dark, shadowy images in the film and increased its overall tonal quality. Max and Fincher do such an impressive job on the setting that the city begins to take a life of its own, almost becoming another character.
However detailed and impressive the setting is, it never overwhelms the characters that dwell there. In particular, the three main characters, played by Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, and Gwyneth Paltrow (who plays Pitt's wife in the film), are so strong and distinctive that they refuse to be lost in the atmospheric mise en scene. Freeman is excellent as the jaded policeman who is ready to call it quits.
For such an ominous and forbidding film, there are some real moments of warmth and compassion and these are provided by Paltrow. There is a great scene where she invites Freeman's character over for dinner. The way she greets them, “Hello men,” with a warm, inviting smile, instantly draws you in. The three characters talk and laugh over a meal and this scene comes as a welcome relief from the horror that we have experienced so far. Paltrow, with her engaging smile and gentleness, imbues Seven with a much needed touch of humanity and transforms what could have easily been a standard wife role into a touching portrayal of a woman torn between the love for her husband and her doubts of living in such a threatening city.
Credit must also go to Fincher and Khondji, who create a visually evocative world and take the time to develop the characters. No rapid-fire MTV editing here, which is a surprise considering Fincher's background as music video director. He only breaks the suspenseful pace for a truly exhilarating chase through a run-down building as the two detectives pursue a mysterious figure that might be the killer. We are suddenly thrust into an adrenaline-driven scene fueled by jarring, hand-held camera shots that are quick and disorienting. This approach enhances the scary, unpredictable quality of the scene as we frantically try to get our bearings. Up until then, nothing prepares us for this sudden jolt and the effect is very powerful indeed.
In his review for the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-a-half stars out of four stars and wrote, “Seven is well-made in its details, and uncompromising in the way it presents the disturbing details of the crimes. It is certainly not for the young or the sensitive. Good as it is, it misses greatness by not quite finding the right way to end.” Janet Maslin, in her review for the New York Times, wrote, “Mr. Freeman moves sagely through Seven with the air of one who has seen it all and will surely be seeing something better very soon. His performance has just the kind of polish and self-possession that his co-star, Mr. Pitt, seems determined to avoid.” In his review for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers wrote, “It's not the identity of the killer that gives Seven its kick – it's the way Fincher raises mystery to the level of moral provocation.”
Desson Howe, in his review for the Washington Post, wrote, “But what makes things watchable is Fincher's direction. He has a gift for building understated menace. His cinematographer, Darius Khondji, puts a silky contrast into the colors, making things seem velvety, dark and intense.” In his review for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “the filmmakers stick to their vision with such dedication and persistence that something indelible comes across—something ethically and artistically superior to The Silence of the Lambs that refuses to exploit suffering for fun or entertainment and leaves you wondering about the world we're living in.” Finally, Sight and Sound proclaimed the film to have “the scariest ending since George Sluizer’s original The Vanishing . . . and stands as the most complex and disturbing entry in the serial killer genre since Manhunter.”
Seven is ultimately a mesmerizing condemnation of life in sprawling, urban areas. For such a negative view, one would have to look back to Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1973), a film that also presented a nightmarish vision of a big city. While the two films share some of the same thematic preoccupations, Seven's stylish predecessor would seem to be Blade Runner (1982) with its noisy, congested, rainswept landscape and film noir look. Seven is a powerful, distinctive film that offers a refreshing take on the tired serial killer genre.
Some of the screenshots that accompany this article came from the excellent Movie Screenshots blog.