David Fincher's Se7en remains in the public consciousness after a decade primarily for its climax -- both for its disturbing content and the endless parodies of Brad Pitt's anguished scream "What's in the baaaaahhhhx?! -- yet its influence on nearly all thrillers that would shoot for the adjective "dark" is nearly incalculable. Its grimy, slimy aesthetic informs countless psychological thrillers, and the extremity of the murders depicted set off a chain reaction that led to grisly crime on the ludicrous scale of Saw as well as the more scientific focus of C.S.I. and its spin-offs.
Upon revisiting Fincher's breakthrough, out now in a positively stunning Blu-Ray remaster, what stuck out at me was the surprising amount of emotion. The term "nihilistic" has been attached so often to the feature that even the new Blu-Ray describes it as such in its included booklet. Yet the film's downbeat, bleak ending does not translate to pure fatalism. Deep within the horrifying twists and turns of the film, Se7en ultimately focuses upon the central character, Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman), and his arduous journey out of the very nihilism that both supporters and detractors see in the movie.
The first shot of the film, in fact, occurs away from the hell of Se7en's unnamed city, safe in Somerset's quiet home. Yet Fincher prepares us for the world outside the man's bedroom by watching the old detective ready himself for work. Freeman, an actor who always casts off a calming vibe, lightly smooths the wrinkles from his jacket. Then, he pockets a switchblade. Something outside clearly made this cop feel that a sidearm alone could not protect him, and when we see what it is, Somerset's nihilism seems almost comical in its insufficiency. If anything, the idea that he thinks a knife can hold back the darkness becomes a hopeful gesture.
After viewing an all-too-common "crime of passion" that leaves a husband dead -- "Just look at all that passion on the wall," he sighs -- Somerset heads out to a crime scene that will severely mess up his plans to retire at the end of the week. With his young, cocky replacement, Detective Mills (Brad Pitt), in tow, Somerset enters a fetid, roach-filled home where a mammoth of a man lies dead face-down in a bowl of spaghetti. Everyone jokes that the man ate himself to death, until they notice his hands and feet bound by wire and a bruise on his temple that suggests a gun pressed to his head. They were right: this guy did eat his fat ass to death, but it wasn't because of a lack of self-control.
Somerset knows this kind of crime is too meticulously planned and executed to be a random act, and he practically begs his captain (R. Lee Ermey) to re-assign him so that he doesn't leave in a week haunted by this killer. Sure enough, when a notorious criminal lawyer turns up dead the next day having been bled to death and left with the word "GREED" scrawled on the floor in his blood, it takes no time for Somerset to realize the pattern.
Each of the murders, based of course on the seven deadly sins, is intricate and, with the exception of the last two, gruesome. Yet Fincher displays a surprising amount of restraint in his view of these extreme crimes. His love of deep focus and his wry method of eliding around gratuitous shots allow him to show grisly scenes while still leaving things to the audience's imagination. Consider the manner with which he presents the Lust murder: Somerset and Mills track down a clue to an S&M parlor where they look at a photo of something the parlor owner designed for the killer, cut to an industrial club/brothel and a backroom where a man sits shivering and hyperventilating next to a bed with a dead prostitute we never quite see, then move to two interrogation rooms, one with the obstinate club owner and the other with the terrified patron. As the man explains having a gun put in his mouth as the killer ordered him, we finally see the photo, showing a knife mounted to a codpiece, and we understand in an instant what he did to that hooker without having to look at it.
That refusal to revel in the salaciousness of the material permits Fincher to devote his time to the characters. He never shatters Mills' confidence (not until the end, anyway) but he does dig deeper and suggest that the young man regrets his brash desire to come to the big city to solve more interesting cases, while his wife's (Gwyneth Paltrow's) obvious discontent drives a wedge between the loving couple that never becomes too stereotypical. The interplay between Mills and Somerset plays on the usual dynamic of the young cop and the old, wizened veteran, yet Fincher and writer Andrew Kevin Walker update it for the '90s: when Somerset figures out the pattern of the killings, he heads to the library to research any literary work he can think of that mentions the seven deadly sins. Mills, a member of the attention-deficit generation, has to buy the Cliff's Notes of those books because he can't stand trawling through Milton and Chaucer.
Even the killer, John Doe (Kevin Spacey), is richly defined despite only appearing in the final act. In his best performance, Spacey doesn't overplay his hand and embodies the banality of evil: there is nothing remarkable about John. He spent years slicing his fingers to destroy his prints, but no one would be able to identify him even if he left a print at the crime scene. So thoroughly boring is the man that he not only has to walk into a police precinct to get noticed but scream until people look. The eyes, however, give it away: in John Doe's eyes in the look of a man who cannot stomach the world around him, who's egotism found an outlet in horrific, fundamentalist Christianity. As he leads Mills and Somerset to his most disturbing setup, he spits venomous dismissal of his victims that betrays his self-absorption behind his religious facade.
But the heart of it all is Somerset. His despair is palpable, and unlike the usual retiring cop who looks back on his career with nostalgia and camaraderie, the detective behaves like the soldier in The Thin Red Line who learns he's being shipped home: rather than make a brave show of wanting to stay and help, he can barely contain his relief over his escape. Somerset sports a habit of ticking a metronome every night both to distract him from past horrors and to drown out the sound of street crime just outside. When Tracy, who doesn't know anyone else in the city, confides in him that she's expecting, he can only offer advice by way of relating his own experience with getting a young woman pregnant many years ago and talking her into an abortion to spare a child the nightmare of growing up in this hell.
Try as he might, however, he cannot leave his work behind them. It is Somerset who guesses the motivation for the killings, who does the thorough research and who even submits to being his replacement's inferior just to stay on and see the case through. A brief conversation with the captain uncovers the humanity in them both: the C.O.'s refusal to believe that Somerset can just quit after so many years on the force seems less a proud inability to see the dangers of the job rather than an insight into his own thought process. Implicit in his speech to Somerset is the notion that he, too, once thought of running away from this futile job, but he couldn't leave without feeling guilty about not helping, the same feeling that tugs at Somerset to finish the case and even stay with the police at the end.
Thus, Se7en is a film about humanity regained, not lost, and its grotesquerie comes to match the same level of exaggeration in numerous Christian allegories. The disillusioned priest in Shyamalan's Signs regains his faith after the terrifying ordeal of an alien invasion. Hell, the entire corpus of Flannery O'Connor reintroduces faith through downright catastrophic means. That religion should be the evil to motivate a character to rediscover his humanism is but the wryest and cleverest trick in a film that expresses a routine enthusiasm, never for the particulars of its crimes but in the ingenuity of its execution. This unexpectedly moral ending, which reveals the intelligence of the film, is the perfect book-end for the opening credits, which revel in the balls-to-the-wall, style-breaking aesthetic of the film. For a long time, that Brakhage-influenced opening represented the zenith of the picture, yet I didn't notice how smart the thing was until it was released at its most visually-appealing.