Picturenose is embarking on a bit of a ‘films we have always meant to review’ trip, and this really is one I should have done some time ago. The greatest murder mystery, ever? Discuss.
There are some cinematic experiences that will stay with you, period. Picture the scene – back in 1995, your faithful reviewer (who was, to be fair, already very much into film at that point) was in the process of discovering, in Cheltenham, just how bad he was at being a Häagen-Dazs ice cream café manager.
My chilling alternative career thankfully had come to an end by early 1996 (and any smart comments you may have about Häagen-Dazs’s loss also being journalism’s loss you can keep to yourselves, what do you say? ), but I will always treasure the very first time I sat down in front of David Fincher’s Seven (in 1995, and it was also called Se7en , but I have been dissuaded from using that title under pain of death by Colin), and rediscovered just how startlingly good genre cinema could be, when it plays for keeps.
Fincher, who had hardly covered himself in glory with his previous film Alien 3 (1992) but who was to go on to other triumphs following Seven (such as Fight Club (1999), for example), took Andrew Kevin Walker’s pitch and screenplay (concocted when Walker was working, a la Tarantino, as a video-store assistant), and delivered a world absolutely drenched in irredeemable wickedness.
From its astonishing opening credits, which have since been duplicated thousands of time and which take us straight into the ordered insanity of a psychopath, the film moves into an initial set-up that is familiar to the point of being hackneyed – in a rain-drenched, nameless American city (in which, seemingly, no one has paid their electricity bill) Detective Lt. William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is seven days away from early retirement. An articulate, intelligent and compassionate bachelor, Somerset is appalled by the degradation and apathy that are his daily grind, and he has had enough. Enter Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), an idealistic, young, hot-shot ‘tec, who’s just arrived in town with his pretty wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) and who ‘actually fought to get reassigned here…’:
Somerset: …I’ve just never seen it done that way before.
Mills: Well, maybe it was for the same reasons you had, before you decided to quit, right?
Somerset: You…you just met me!
Safe to say, as the above exchange shows, that Mills and Somerset don’t exactly hit it off straight away – and the atmosphere further chills when Somerset, tiring of his protegee’s cocky attitude, has him do a little door-to-door at the beginning of a strange murder investigation. An incredibly obese man has been found dead in his house – and it would appear that he was force-fed until he burst.
Somerset, suspecting that this means something is beginning, tries to explain the same to his Police Captain (an excellent R. Lee Ermey), but his boss is having none of it, and insists that Somerset remains on the case for his last seven days as a cop. Then, someone murders a high-flying and corrupt lawyer, bleeding him to death and writing the word ‘Greed’ on the floor in blood. This is beginning, as Somerset confirms when he finds the word ‘Gluttony’ written in grease on the wall behind the fridge in the first victim’s apartment – and a little note: ‘Long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to light’…
Someone is bumping off people using the Seven Deadly Sins (Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Lust, Pride, Wrath and Envy) as a guide, and a simpler, more felicitous linking device for a whodunnit you couldn’t find. And yet, that’s one of the most fascinating things about Seven – by the time the film ends, and believe me, if you haven’t seen it, this is an ending that will stay with you for all time, the killer’s identity is fundamentally irrelevant.
It is one of the most disturbing, darkest films ever released by a mainstream studio – and yet, its horror is unseen as well as visual, with photographic evidence and twitching, gibbering eye-witnesses bearing testament to the extent to which the killer is prepared to go.
Sure, ‘John Doe’ (who reveals himself in a coup de cinema) has a famous face (and the famous actor quite rightly asked for his name to be removed from the credits), but it’s what he has to say, why he was motivated to do what he did, and how much his thinking appears to mirror that of Somerset’s, that forms the sun-drenched ending to die for.
An ending, in fact, that Brad Pitt was brave enough to fight for – the studio were twittering about its bleakness, and Pitt said he would withdraw services if they didn’t stick to Fincher/Walker’s original vision. And thank the Lord for that, though God plays no part in this climax.
What’s in the box? Please, don’t ask…