There’s something instinctively appealing about the serial killer film: The exhaustive and often overwhelming journey its protagonists must face; the terrifying notion of an unstoppable force ready to strike at any time; the relentless pursuit of clues and evidence; an insight into the mindset of somebody driven to murderous acts; the dark and twisted mise-on-scène. Cinema has exploited the serial killer – both fictional and non-fictional – to varying results. Here, we showcase the best of this brilliant sub-genre.
The Great Serial Killer Films #2: Se7en (1995)
Se7en is one of the best-loved films of its era and perhaps the most famous serial killer picture ever made. Considering that it has no true life inspiration, prides itself on dank, gloomy visuals, and paints a negative picture of the human race at large, it’s somewhat surprising that audiences embraced it (and continue to embrace it) with such giddy enthusiasm. Despite its cynical positioning, though, there’s something about Se7en‘s blunt pessimism that viewers can’t seem to resist. As a piece of neo-noir filmmaking, it has emerged as the quintessential blueprint for which subsequent serial killer movies must be made. Most fail in their attempts to do so.
Se7en embodies all that is engrossing about the serial killer film: flawed, likeable characters; a memorable villain; an investigation which plagues its characters physically and emotionally; tight, punchy lines of dialogue; a unique visual style. Then it goes further. The film (and its director) fully understand the vision and intention of the original writer and tackle the material accordingly. In Se7en‘s most exceptional quality, it constructs a world that is so fully-realized that a viewing of the film is justified on that aspect alone.
Unlike most films about serial killers or murderers, Se7en is more interested in a certain attitude, and the murders which take place through the course of the film do not personify that attitude effusively – they could have taken place anywhere, at any time, in any city. The attitude, however, is in alleyways, on the streets, and in the shadowy apartment blocks of Andrew Kevin Walker’s unnamed metropolis. It’s in the police department, in the clubs and the bars, and reaching into the library, the last refuge for culture, art and the leftovers of morality. Se7en builds a city and puts it on aesthetic. It is apathy which has consumed every inch.
Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is a week from retirement. A veteran, Somerset is considered a nuisance by fellow police detectives (“Why’s it always these questions with you?”) and disillusioned by cases he’s supposed to solve with emotional detachment. Somerset sleeps with a metronome by his bedside: the only sense of order he can muster in his life. He concentrates at night by continually throwing a pocket knife into a dartboard and immerses himself in literature as means of escape. Upon hailing a taxi, he tells the driver to go “anywhere but here” as he watches a fight breaking out in the street. Somerset hates the city. It is everything he knows and everything he is powerless to change.
Sunday. In the street (and the rain, no doubt), Somerset meets his new partner David Mills (Brad Pitt). Recently transferred, Mills is young, plucky, idealistic and impatient: traits which Somerset might have embodied as a younger man, perhaps. Though Somerset begins his relationship with Mills in classic buddy cop fashion (breaking his balls), it isn’t long before he begins to see aspects he likes.
After all, Mills is a dedicated husband and has been with Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) since childhood. The young detective’s most admirable trait, though, is his sense of justice: he hates to see bad things happening to good people, and would do anything in his power (and even out of his power) to get the scumbags off the streets. Perspectives are quickly established: Somerset serves the role of cynic. Mills is the optimist. We automatically side with Somerset because he has the experience and treats Mills like a teacher would treat the clown at school. Just like in that scenario, there’s a strange desire to side with the clown. You admire his courage.
Of course, none of it really matters because it’s about to be the worst week of both detective’s lives: a serial killer has emerged and is using the 7 deadly sins as his modus operandi. The first victim is discovered in unusual circumstances, though Somerset might’ve seen similar events in all his years on the force. But this particular situation plays on his mind, because there has to be more to a fat man tied and bound and forced to eat until his stomach burst. Somerset is right to suspect as such, and the next 7 days are scattered with victims in increasingly horrific and intricate crimes. Somerset, versed in literature, is first to understand that the killer (who will come to be known as only John Doe) is preaching a message.
Se7en is thin on police procedure and takes certain liberties, choosing instead to emphasise the cruel nature of the crimes. The two detectives, after all, operate within an obliging (if not shoulder shrugging) department, but they aren’t exactly victims of their institution. Despite that, it is Somerset who must constantly remind Mills of where he is. “You’ve seen my files, you’ve seen the things I’ve done,” Mills protests, only for Somerset to put him straight: “Not here.” This is a different world. No city on earth is as cruel as the city in Se7en, and so it wasn’t enough to call it New York or Los Angeles. It had to be ambiguous.
The pieces of Se7en fit together with such natural precision. Each and every aspect of production – from Howard Shore’s gloomy, draining score, to the casting of the city’s minor characters – seem fixed to Fincher’s cityscape organically. Though we never see it in its entirety, the location appears fully-realized. The wonderful, sickly cinematography and the clinical placement of the camera gives it the impression of a twisted Edward Hopper painting. It’s an illusion that it all comes together so effortlessly, of course, because Fincher is a director of calculated precision – absolutely everything would have been thought out with painstaking attention to detail. The masterstroke is in the way it all blurs at the seams, like a painting by a hundred different artists that appears to be the work of one man.
Se7en doesn’t just excel in every aspect of modern movie-making, it surpasses the limitations it holds on itself. There are subtle experiments with genre convention as classic elements in police procedure and buddy cop movies are revamped, defied and deconstructed. Best of all, Se7en remains fresh on subsequent viewings: not many films with a big reveal can immerse you on a second viewing, especially if the plot is hinged on the pursuit of a mystery suspect. Se7en is endlessly gripping because it does not compromise its intentions (despite Warner Bros. request to change the ending) and refuses to soften a single blow. The story is bleak, and unashamedly so, but there’s honour in going all the way to the heart of darkness – audiences respected that in ’95, and still do in 2011.
Had David Fincher relinquished control and changed the ending, Se7en would be half the film it is today – it exists (and can only exist) because it is an ultimately damning experience. Changing that aspect undermines every moment that comes before. The city’s standing is defined throughout the film from those on both sides of life: Mills’ conversation with the strip club owner ends with him shrugging, “But that’s life, isn’t it?”, and the police Captain says at one point, “That’s the way it’s always been.” Everybody has resigned to merely accepting the horror because it’s easier that way. It’s Mills’ mistake to believe he can change a world (in Doe’s words) “this shitty.”
Detective Mills is somebody to admire in a city so willing to accept that nothing has any value. His good intentions are faltered over and over again throughout the course of the film, and a first-time viewer could be forgiven for expecting that Mills’ righteousness will come to light by the end of the film. Instead, Se7en makes Mills look a fool. His entire position is revealed to be utterly misguided. When he finally comes up against the evil that has plagued the city for the last 7 days, he’s unable to stop himself making a devastating decision – in just 7 days, he, too, has been consumed by its dark, infectious attitude. Se7en has no faith in the human race, so Mills never had a chance to begin with.
Se7en ends with the only voice-over moment in the entire film. Tacked on at the studio’s request, the Hemingway line quoted by Somerset seems somewhat heavy-handed – it serves to as an epitaph for the entire story, although there’s nothing in it that we don’t know already from better, subtler moments. But taken as something Somerset must repeat to himself, if only to get by, to live another day, and the quotation takes stronger meaning. “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for” – the Hemingway quote in full – sums up Mills’ attitude towards the world. Somerset’s addition – that he simply agrees with the second part – hints that there has been a small change in the veteran detective’s outlook.
The turn of events is devastating, yes, but Somerset, at least, isn’t ready to give up. He’ll fight, even in a world this shitty. If Andrew Kevin Walker wrote Se7en as a critique of modern city life, and as a warning against relentless consumerism and the human leaning towards apathy, there’s a shred of hope if he, too, believes there is some good worth fighting for. But that’s as close to optimism as you can sanely reach here, in a city where a shrug is as good as a smile and the rain never stops washing the sins of its inhabitants away.