"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Monday, October 13, 2008


Living in any major metropolitan city in North America can be a dangerous experience. Ask anyone who lives in places like New York City, Philadelphia or Los Angeles. There is a certain amount of fear and paranoia that exists in these densely populated, often congested areas. When you have that many different types of people living in one place problems are bound to arise. In the past, these problems have always seemed containable, maybe even solvable, but now there is a certain sense of pessimism or apathy that pervades the public consciousness. Where once there was hope, now there is only despair, or worse yet, disinterest. Seven (1995) is a film that taps into these feelings with startling accuracy and clarity. It is a disturbing descent into a dark, urban hell that is at once powerful and unpleasant. Call it an urban horror film.

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, Somerset wants nothing to do with the case, but then a second murder occurs. A prominent defense attorney is found dead in his office with the word, "greed" written on the carpet in his own blood. After going back to the previous crime scene and finding the word, "gluttony," Somerset realizes that there is a pattern forming — these murders are in fact fashioned after the seven deadly sins: sloth, wrath, pride, lust, envy, greed, and gluttony. Still, he does not wish to get involved in the investigation, but the unique style of these murders continues to nag at him. So, he and Mills team up and find themselves delving deeper and deeper into this increasingly disturbing case.
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 Walker’s time spent in New York City while trying to make it as a screenwriter. "I didn't like my time in New York, but it's true that if I hadn't lived there I probably wouldn't have written Seven." This distaste for big city life is readily evident from the first exterior shot of the film that features an urban abyss filled with crowded, noisy denizens while an oppressive rain always seems to fall without respite. This look was an integral part of the film as Fincher wanted to show a city that was "dirty, violent, polluted, often depressing. Visually and stylistically, that's how we wanted to portray this world. Everything needed to be as authentic and raw as possible."

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 Walker’s script because he found it to be 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.” Fincher approached making Seven like a “tiny genre movie, the kind of movie Friedkin might have made after The Exorcist.” Fincher worked with cinematographer Darius Khondji and together they adopted a simple approach to the camerawork. One starting off point was the television show Cops and “how the camera is in the backseat peering over people’s shoulder.”
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. Somerset is a world apart from the stereotypical, shoot-first-ask-questions-later cop that is usually depicted in these kinds of films. Freeman portrays him as a patient man, who is methodical and thorough in his methods — much like the killer and much like the film itself, which takes its time and draws you in with an almost hypnotic intensity. Somerset is also a thoughtful and reflective person. There are many shots of Freeman just standing or sitting in silence as he tries to figure everything out, to make sense of it all. Most films would never take the time to show these kinds of things. When Walker wrote the screenplay, he originally envisioned William Hurt as Somerset and the character’s name came from one of his favorite authors, W. Somerset Maugham. During pre-production, Al Pacino was considered for the role of Somerset but decided to do City Hall (1996) instead. Watching the film now one can’t imagine anyone else playing the role but Freeman.
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.


Montesano, Anthony. “Seven’s Deadly Screenwriter.” Cinefantastique. February 1996.

Taubin, Amy. “The Allure of Decay.” Sight and Sound. January 1996.


  1. I love this film. I've always been a fan of this type of movie. The cast was great. Freeman and Pitt worked quite well together. The movie was bleak, dark, and dreary. That's how it should have been. Great write-up.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, Keith. As one reviewer pointed out, I think that this is probably the best serial killer film since Michael Mann's MANHUNTER. I know a lot of people love THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS but that one never did much for me.