Is a killer ever right? Can the taking of lives ever be good? How exactly does one react when faced with something beyond their comprehension, beyond the threshold of sanity? All these questions and more are scurrying across the subtext of David Fincher’s 1995 magnum opus, Seven.
Morgan Freeman is detective William Somerset, a jaded master detective who has had enough. Brad Pitt is detective David Mills, a young, brash up-and-comer who is replacing Somerset. The two have issues right from the get-go, as Mills’ talkative optimism meets Somerset’s brooding misery. To throw gas on the fire is a string of brutal murders inspired by the seven deadly sins (gluttony, greed, sloth, lust, pride, envy, wrath). The two find themselves forced together in order to solve these crimes. To help the process, Mills’ lovely young wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) intervenes, offering both men a glimmer of hope in the face of a city teeming with hate and horror.
The film weaves itself expertly, perfectly leading to what is arguable the single most memorable ending in cinematic history. This is an ending no one should spoil, especially me. Trust and believe your humble reviewer when I say, this is a film everyone with a pulse should bear witness to. It would be hopeless to pinpoint a single quality of Seven that would explain its appeal. The themes of apathy and home are interwoven throughout the movie. David Fincher’s devotion to making his fictional city real could almost be described as insane. Every detail, every frame, every single line of dialogue bursts with a subliminal meaning, some hidden truth.
The actual murders are handled with a surprising tenderness and beauty. They reach a level of maddening detail and artistry that bring to mind the Italian masterworks of directors like Dario Argento and Mario Bava and the Giallo era.
Another focus of the film is the city the characters inhabit. The city is completely devoid of natural light, only the lights the people turn on. In effect, the city is one of the film’s most fully developed and fascinating characters.
As far as characters go, each one is fleshed out to the point where you could imagine yourself looking over your shoulder in some dingy diner and believing you might overhear Mills and Somerset bickering, or catch Tracy Mills’ innocent glow out of the corner of your eye. You feel for these people and mourn their crumbling world.
The world is disgusting, miserable, and choking, but you see it with such intimacy you pray for its survival. With these hypnotic and spellbinding attributes it would be easy for any other film to simply abandon any sort of message and leave the viewer with pure aestheticism, but this is not any other film.
The message, the purpose for the film, becomes as important to the viewer as any cinematic trick or effect. The film is an attack on day-to-day apathy and callousness. We ignore car alarms and wars overseas so we can be comfortable with our Tivo and fast food, until something truly dreadful invades our consciousness and forces us to look our misery in the face. Only by doing the unexpected, the unforgivable, the unnatural, is anyone truly noticed in Seven’s world. The film is essentially a dare to care. If we walk away from the movie with a new look at life, with a renewed desire to listen or communicate, then all the gore and glory was not lost on us. The movie is the message, and if we listen close enough, we can learn to listen again, to the things that really matter.