Gluttony. Greed. Sloth. Lust. Pride. Envy. Wrath.
I can’t remember when I first saw Se7en. I’m pretty sure it was on video. It impressed me at once, partly due to its unending darkness, partly due to the fine work of actors whom I respect. Perhaps like some of you, I held off on buying New Line’s original DVD release (with no features and a “flipper” disc), hoping that something better would come along. The side effect was that I didn’t watch Se7en for well over a year. When I was finally able to buy this new Platinum Series set, I think I watched it at least three or four times. Like only a handful of other films, it is one that I grow to respect more and more each time I watch it. There is so much to see, so much to learn, that new details come to the foreground with each new viewing
In preparation for this review, I read Richard Dyer’s book on the film, which presented me with even more things to think about. If you can possibly find that book (I sat in the local university library for two hours, reading the entire volume), it will open new worlds to you about the film. However, I don’t necessarily agree with everything Dyers says, so this review is largely going to be my current interpretation of the film. I say “current” because I’ll sometimes reread my reviews and wonder what I was thinking. Six months ago I probably would have written a different review, and six months from now the same could probably be said. If anything I think that speaks as a testament to the power of the cinematic medium.
Se7en is remarkably, deceptively simple in its plot construction. The core of the film is a story that would not feel out of place in a Dirty Harry movie, or on one of the panoply of television crime shows. A rookie detective, David Mills (Brad Pitt), teams with a veteran just days from retirement, William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), to investigate a series of killings. At first, they seem unconnected and random, but the detectives soon discover that the murders are part of a diabolical “sermon” on the Seven Deadly Sins of Catholic dogma.
Like I said, deceptively simple.
So, if Se7en has all the trappings of a buddy cop flick or a whodunit potboiler, what separates it from mainstream pap like Lethal Weapon or The General’s Daughter? Style and substance, both of which work symbiotically to raise the film above the clichés and bounds of genre. Too often, the two do not play together nicely — style makes the movie all flash and no bang (like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or most of the films of Tim Burton), or substance makes the film so heavy it is inaccessible to the average moviegoer (like John Sayles’ Lone Star). (Now, don’t get me wrong. I loved Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Lone Star, and I think you should all know by now how I feel about Tim Burton. I’m man enough to admit that these favorite films may have flaws, real or supposed.)
I cannot possibly discuss the style or substance of Se7en without stepping back to speak about its craftsman, namely David Fincher and Andrew Kevin Walker. Director David Fincher, like his peers at Propaganda Films — Spike Jonze, Michael Bay, Simon West — started his directorial career in the music video world. He directed pieces like Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and “Vogue,” and Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got A Gun.” His feature film entrance was Alien3 in 1992. Critics and audiences alike reviled it for its oppressive atmosphere and the direction in which it took the Alien franchise. Personally, I like it much more than even Ridley Scott’s opening film of the series. I like the dark, claustrophobic atmosphere, and he brought a sense of humanness to even the most thinly drawn characters. Those qualities — darkness and humanness — would become common themes in his work. His next film was 1995’s Se7en…I’ll get back to it in a minute. His follow-up to Se7en was the 1997 thriller The Game. I found it trite and weak, especially (or particularly) in the light (or darkness) of Se7en. 1999 brought what will most likely be the highlight of his career: Fight Club. Like Se7en, it is an indictment of American culture, reflecting back its love of violence, its narcissism, its obsession with the most banal facets of our existence. Critics either lauded its brilliance, or dismissed it for its excess, or misinterpreted its flashiness as shallowness. Many white male twentysomethings embraced it as the mouthpiece for their unvocalized rage (At what? They have everything everyone who is genuinely oppressed in our culture wants). The public as a whole met it with indifference. (Keep that word — indifference — in mind; I’ll be coming back to it.)
Andrew Kevin Walker has four screenplays to his credit, five if you count his uncredited work on Fincher’s Fight Club. Prior to Se7en, he wrote the mass-market pseudo-horror thrillers Brainscan and Hideaway. He wrote the screenplay for another look at serial killers, the Joel Schumacher directed 8mm. He worked on the script for Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow; I think it’s safe to say he turned the script by makeup maestro Kevin Yagher from a run of the mill slasher movie into something with a little (I said “little”) more substance.
So, now we have the framework to discuss Se7en’s style and substance.
Stylistically, the first thing that strikes you is its gloom. Many viewers cannot get past that attribute to see what is under the surface. Not unlike that quintessential crime genre, film noir, Fincher uses light and shadow (mostly shadow) to accentuate the story’s brutality, to build on your sense of dread. The film’s palette is dreary greens and browns and blacks and blues, punctuated by the occasional flash of color that jars the senses after its absence. For much of the film, we see only dark, dank interiors and rainy, depressing exteriors. However, once the killer is revealed and is no longer in shadow, the film’s world is briefly bathed in sunlight. Even then, it is oddly in contrast to Howard Shore’s score and the events that play out, and the sense of hope it gives the viewer is dashed to the ground. This is a film budding cineastes would do well to analyze, for it is an interesting study in the psychological effects of the way in which the film is composed and shot, particularly its use of color.
Falling somewhere in between discussion of style and substance is the way in which the murders themselves are illustrated. The slayings are presented after the fact; we only see first-hand two of the corpses (Gluttony and Sloth — is Fincher saying something about our fast food, couch potato culture?). The director relies on what many horror film directors seem to forget: what the eyes of the imagination witness can often have more impact than what is seen by the corporeal eyes. One of the movie’s most vicious murders, and the one that has the most lasting impression on many viewers — Lust — is only described verbally and through one furtive glance at the murder “weapon.” Yet in our mind’s eye, we can picture the terrifying, graphic, brutal scene. It sends chills down my spine just thinking about it.
Substance…substance…how do you talk about a movie that has so much going on? That can be interpreted in so many different ways? That presents so many weighty topics for discussion? By narrowing the field of discussion down to just the elements that are of the most interest to you.
Most people see Se7en as a movie that’s just about a serial killer and the cops bringing him to justice. Some see it as being about the sins themselves. I think there’s something more to it than that. Saying Se7en is about the murders is like saying Fight Club is about fighting. It’s the shallowest way in which you can view the movie. In Fight Club, Fincher used the conceit of the fight club to contrast two different world views, gave his conclusion, but left room for you to draw yours. Narcissism and materialism were both drawn in sharp contrast to nihilism, but in the end the important thing was not to march in lockstep to the beat of any drummer. In Se7en, the conflict is between unfailing optimism and unflagging pessimism, with beauty and innocence caught in the middle. Mills represents unfailing optimism. He thinks the world is an okay place, with the odd wacko who needs to be put into line. Somerset is unflagging pessimism. He sees through the eyes of experience. He’s lived in the city for too long, been a cop for too many years, and has seen too much of the evil that man can do to think the world is a fine place. He is almost the counterpoint to the killer. Both behold the evil around them and are upset by it, only their reactions are manifested in different ways. In the middle, representing the innocent victims of the world, is Mills’ wife Tracy. She also sees the evil around her, but her reaction is to protect herself by removing herself from the evil, though she cannot do so without upsetting her husband’s chosen life. Around these central characters are people who are indifferent. Sure, they know the world is evil, but what are you gonna do? This is seen most clearly in the denouement of the Lust killing. The man who sold the device used for the killing just shrugs his shoulders and says he’s had customers ask for weirder things. The guy who owns the sex club where the murder takes place is even more apathetic when he is brought to the police station for questioning. He was just doing his job.
Se7en may use religious doctrine as the basis for the murders, but it does not adequately delve into the rationale or implications of that doctrine. As I’m sure you’re aware, the Christian faith is based upon the Bible, a collection of documents written by Jewish and Christian leaders between approximately 2000 BC and 90 AD. The Seven Deadly Sins have no Biblical basis; the closest list of vices is in Galatians 6:19-21: “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissentions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.” The Seven Deadly Sins were made a part of Catholic doctrine in the late 6th century AD by Pope Gregory the Great. I must make the distinction. Traditionally, “Christian” doctrine has been based solely upon the interpretation of passages in the Bible; the Catholic Church, while based upon the same text, has added traditions and dogmas of their own that have no textual basis (such as the hierarchical system of clergy, reverence of the saints, glorification of the Virgin Mary, penance for sins, the concept of Purgatory, et cetera). Hollywood and pop culture often amalgamate the two, but I feel the distinction must be made so that you have a clear idea of the basis for Se7en‘s imagery and the conceit of the entire story.
The killer based his killings on the Seven Deadly Sins: gluttony, greed, sloth lust, pride, envy, and wrath. Like I said, the list is never given in the Bible as it stands, though one can find Scripture to condemn each one. Obviously, the killer of Se7en was not entirely stable, so it’s unlikely he was considering the entirely of church doctrine when carrying out his sermon. His sermon is akin to the early Protestant preachers who would rail against sinfulness without giving equal play to the other side of the equation: that there is forgiveness for sins. The oft-quoted verse to support this sort of preaching — and I suppose John Doe could give in defense of his killings — is Romans 6:23: “The wages of sin is death.” Of course, he would forget to mention the rest of the verse, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord,” as well as the rest of that chapter that discusses that the wrathful, vengeful God of the Old Testament is really a soft, lovable guy if you do what he tells you. Anyway, I’m not here to convert you or anything; I just thought this would make for an interesting perspective that you’re not likely to find anywhere else.
Wow, there’s so much to talk about.
I would be negligent if I did not mention the phenomenal acting in Se7en. I have said it before and I will say it again: Brad Pitt does not get the respect he deserves as an actor. You need to look no further than Se7en or 12 Monkeys or Fight Club to see that he has considerable range and can make his characters believable. Mills goes through quite a transformation in the film that I will not discuss because I do not want to spoil the film. He presents a wide range of emotions, and is always believable. Morgan Freeman is a steady, dependable actor. Somerset does not stray far from his established persona of the sage, respectable older man that we have seen in Deep Impact, Kiss The Girls, even [shiver] Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. He is uniformly excellent, but it’s difficult to give higher or more verbose praise. You’ve probably seen the film, but in case you have not I will not identify the man behind John Doe. Suffice it to say he is a very respected actor, and very much at home in the creepy role. No, it’s not Christopher Walken. Gwyneth Paltrow is not in the film much, but her presence can be felt even when she is not on screen. It’s probably the most somber of her roles, and probably one of my favorites. You’ll see a few other recognizable faces, such as R. Lee Ermey (the vile drill sergeant of Full Metal Jacket) as the police captain, Richard Roundtree (Shaft…can you dig it?) as a police department spokesperson, John C. McGinley (Wall Street, The Rock) as the SWAT team point man (“SWAT goes before dicks!”), and Charles S. Dutton (Alien3) in an uncredited role as a cop. Oh, and the delivery van driver toward the end of the movie? That’s Richmond Arquette of the Arquette clan. He’s the brother of David, Patricia, and Rosanna Arquette.
As for the disc itself…New Line has outdone themselves. They’ve outdone just about anyone else. Just about. It is becoming increasingly difficult to weigh these various two-disc sets against each other, for they come out so frequently and are of a wide variety of films with differing supplemental content needs. The film is presented with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 with an anamorphic transfer. Theatrically, it was presented at 2.40:1, so it’s curious why they did not maintain that ratio (like Fox did with the Fight Club). But hey, on a 27″ 4:3 television that’s a loss of less than 0.2″ of information. No biggie. This transfer underwent extensive remastering, and it definitely shows. You will be hard-pressed to find a sharper, crisper, cleaner image on any other DVD. Fincher’s original vision for the film is preserved perfectly. The only thing I detected that marred the picture was occasional edge enhancement that led to dot crawl. It was visible in only a handful of scenes that are lit more brightly that the rest of the film.
Audio has been remixed from the original source elements to intensify the experience for the home viewer. It is presented in DTS-ES 6.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 EX, as well as two-channel matrixed surround for those of you without digital setups (oh, and I do pity you!). I do not have a DTS-compatible receiver, so I could not test that track, nor do I have a center rear speaker. Heard in straight Dolby Digital 5.1, the new mix is a wonder to behold. Needless to say, sound quality is perfect. Where the track really excels is in the subtle placement of ambient sounds all around the viewer. Fincher relied heavily on the influence of the aural atmosphere on the viewer almost as much as he trusted the visuals. You absolutely must listen to this track at a volume that will allow you to feel all these surrounding effects. You’ll see the movie through new eyes…err, ears.
For supplemental content, New Line has given fans a definitive look at this film. I recently complained that Artisan’s reissue of The Doors as a two-disc set was not a definitive, ultimate look at that film. Not so here. The first disc offers four…yes, FOUR…commentary tracks. The first track, and the only one I viewed prior to writing this review, is labeled the “stars” track. It features David Fincher, Brad Pitt, and Morgan Freeman. Fincher and Pitt have a rapport that is readily evident, as it was on their track on the Fight Club disc. Unfortunately, Freeman’s comments were recorded separately and spliced in. It’s nice to hear their comments on the meaning of the film, as well as the travails of making it. The other three tracks are labeled “Story,” “Picture,” and “Sound.” Each of these tracks features the comments of Richard Dyer. If you were paying attention earlier, you’ll remember that he wrote a must-read book on Se7en. In fact, I didn’t put two and two together until five seconds ago when I looked through the liner notes to write about the other commentaries. Now I’m going to have to watch these tracks. The Story track also features Fincher, screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, editor Richard Francis-Bruce, and former New Line executive (and über film buff) Michael De Luca. The Picture track features Fincher, Francis-Bruce, cinematographer Darius Khondji, and production designer Arthur Max. The Sound track features Fincher, composer Howard Shore, and sound designer Ren Klyce. All in all, it looks like a set of commentaries that should answer any and every question you have about the film.
On to disc two, where the other goodies are located. Here’s a rundown:
Exploration of the Opening Title Sequence: This gives you a look at the various incarnations of the opening titles. Three angles are available that can be switched on the fly: the original storyboards, an early version that isn’t as jumpy as the final sequence, and the theatrical opening. A bevy of audio options are available as well: the original Dolby Surround track, the newly created Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS audio, and an uncompressed PCM stereo track (note, though, that you cannot switch angles or audio tracks on the fly if you are viewing the PCM version). There are two commentary tracks as well: one by designer Kyle Cooper and one with audio engineers Brant Biles and Robert Margonleff.
Deleted Scenes and Extended Takes: Here you will find seven (har, har) deleted scenes or alternate takes of scenes in the movie.
Alternate Endings: Unfortunately, these do not venture far beyond what is in the movie. One version of the script had a Hollywood happy ending, but unfortunately that is not presented here. One of the alternate endings is a slightly different edit of the theatrical ending. The other is a 7 1/2 minute animated storyboard sequence, and is genuinely different (though I won’t spoil the differences). You can choose to view both alternate endings with or without commentary by David Fincher.
Production Design: Nine minutes of production paintings with commentary.
Still Photographs: The makers of this disc weren’t content to show only a gallery of promotional pictures. Nooo…you get just about every photo taken of the production and for use in the film itself. The photos are presented as slideshows with commentary by the photographers. You get 14 minutes of John Doe’s photos, 2 1/2 minutes of Victor’s decomposition, 5 1/2 minutes of police crime scene photos (from the movie, not real crime scenes), and 11 minutes of promotional photos.
The Notebooks: This is a look at the design and crafting of John Doe’s many notebooks. It runs about 8 1/2 minutes.
Promotional Materials: Here you get the “electronic press kit” and a theatrical trailer. The press kit is a promotional featurette about the film, and clocks in at about 6 1/2 minutes. It is presented in anamorphic widescreen, with the 4:3 video windowboxed. It’s a strange presentation choice, but I won’t argue with the increased resolution. The trailer is also presented in anamorphic widescreen, with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. It’s a great trailer, giving the basic premise without spoiling the details.
Filmographies: That’s all you get: filmographies. Some biographical information would have been appreciated, but I’m not going to split hairs. You get filmographies of five actors and nine members of the creative team.
Mastering for the Home Theater: If you wanted to know how they make a DVD, or at least how they made this DVD, here you go. It’s a 23-minute look at what it took to make Se7en look and sound as phenomenal as it does. You also get a “telecine gallery,” which shows before and after comparisons (via multiple angles) of the old DVD transfer and this new transfer. You can also compare the old 5.1 mix and the new one. Prepare yourself to be wowed by the difference.
On top of the listed extras, there are DVD-ROM features on both discs, though unfortunately I could not review them.
I have absolutely nothing negative to say about this film or this disc.
Whew, I said so much, and yet could still say so much. I didn’t even talk about the musical choices for the opening and closing credits (Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie during his industrial phase, respectively), or Howard Shore’s subtly effective score, or Dyer’s theories on the film’s presentation of sin and the nature of John Doe…and so much more. Se7en is such a rich film that somehow didn’t receive the critical acclaim that it should have. I mean, if Silence of the Lambs won so many Oscars, why was Se7en only nominated in one category (Film Editing, which it lost to Apollo 13)? No offense to all those Hannibal Lechter lovers out there, but Se7en was a far superior film, in my modest opinion. It had much more to say, and was filmed with more style and panache and chutzpah than in every film Jonathan Demme has made in his entire career.
Anyway, screw the critics. You know and I know that Se7en is an exceptional film. New Line’s Platinum Series DVD deserves to be on the shelf of every serious film fan out there.
Personally, I think NIN’s “March of the Pigs” or “Happiness in Slavery” would have also been an appropriate remix candidate for Se7en‘s opening credits. “The Becoming” would have been good too, with the lyrics “Won’t give up / Wants me dead / God damn this noise inside my head.” “Closer” was a nice choice too, and almost certainly the most effective. There’s no way that anyone who has heard the song could forget the rest of the lyrics once they hear that “you get me closer to God” refrain at the end of the credits.
Did I ever mention that my freshman year at Northwest Christian College, for my English 123 research project, I wrote a paper on Jeffrey Dahmer? I wish I still had a copy of it. It was probably the assignment I found the most interesting in the five years I was there. Did you know that his favorite movie was The Exorcist III? Talk about a guy with no taste…