Sunday, 16 February 2014

Elwood's Essentials #6: Se7en

Title: Se7en
Director: David Fincher
Released: 1995
Starring: Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, Gwyneth Paltrow, John C. McGinley, Richard Roundtree, R.Lee Ermey

Plot: Homicide detectives Somerset (Freeman) and Mills (Pitt) find themselves pitted against a serial killer using the seven deadly sins as the basis for a series of gruesome murders.

Review: There is a line towards the end of the film which I personally feels defines this film.

“What I've done is going to be puzzled over and studied and followed... forever.”

While this is kind of a throwaway line muttered by the sins obsessed serial killer John Doe (Spacey), it is one which almost encapsulates my love for this film, as even though I have seen it numerous times it still maintains the same thrills I got the first time I watched it. So seeing how the folks over at "French Toast Sunday" are holding a month long David Fincher retrospective what better time to revisit than now.
Coming off his loathsome experience making the fan base dividing “Alien3” few expected this film from Fincher whom at this point in his career was still better known for directing music videos than feature films. I would however upon its release soon mark him out as a talent to watch and one which many had wrongly dismissed with the release of his feature debut. This film equally forms for myself part of the his most exciting period of work, which started with “Alien3” and reached its peak with “Panic Room” before his work started to lose its edge with films like “Zodiac” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”.

Set in an unnamed city yet drawing inspiration from New York, it is a morally devoid place which literally seems to be rotting like an exposed wound with buildings left in a state of permanent decay while the constant rain only further gives the impression that it is in some way trying to cleanse itself of the countless sins it holds within its city limits. All of which makes it the perfect playground for John Doe to carry out his murderous sermon. It is a landscape perfectly realised by production designer Arthur Max while only further complimented by the cinematography of Darius Khondji which sees him drawing inspiration from his earlier work on “Delicatessen” and “The City of Lost Children”.

While it could be seen as a hopeless place it is still one which both Somerset refuses to give up on, even when faced with a society sinking forever further into the depths of depravity. Of course it could be just that he has become numb to his surroundings, or the wall of interlect he has built around himself as he keeps an ever quizzical mind, while frequently proving himself to be well read, something which comes in especially handy when dealing with a fellow interlect like John Doe. This is not to say that Somerset doesn’t see his surroundings as he carries in his wallet a picture of a rose which in a deleted scene was shown to have been cut from the wallpaper of a house outside of the city he plans to retire to. Elsewhere his first conversation with Mills is to question why he would want to transfer there, especially when it seems everyone is busily trying to get out. Mills of course though is the polar opposite to Somerset, with Pitt playing him as every bit the youthful rookie, eager to carve out his career in the big city, which seemingly is something he feels he couldn’t do in his rural hometown. At the same time he is hindered by his hot headedness and brash attitude, something which is frequently played against him by John Doe, something which came as something of a surprise in many way, especially when Somerset is on a similar intellectual level let alone as equally well read, but then I guess this would play against the end game.

Still the odd couple partnership is nothing new in the crime genre, yet here it still feels fresh, thanks to the extreme opposites Mills and Somerset are to each other, with Mills just starting his career while Somerset’s is coming to a close with his retirement at the end of the week and while the chase to capture John Doe is frequently a thrilling and shock filled one, it is equally fascinating to see how the case also brings the two detectives to what could almost be seen as a middle ground with Somerset losing his zen like cool and slowly showing more aggression and frustration as John Doe gets closer to completing his masterpiece. Meanwhile Mills is seen trying to smarten himself up to reach Somerset’s interlectual level, as he sends out for Cliff notes for the major texts which John Doe seemingly is drawing inspiration from. The two finally reaching this desired middle ground as they share a joke while shaving their chests in one of the great underrated scenes of Fincher’s filmography.

Needless to say it is the murders which overshadow everything in this film, thanks mainly to them being so memorable, even if like Mills and Somerset we only get to see the aftermath of John Doe’s handiwork and with each murder being based around a different sin creative is certainly one way of describe his work. Of course it is a morbid curiosity going into the film to see how each of the sins is represented, even if some have now become more iconic than the film as certainly the case with “Sloth” which finds an alternative use for car air fresheners. It is of course something of a shock when we finally meet Spacey’s John Doe, who here continued on from his roll of playing memorable rolls which he started with “The Usual Suspects” and finished by playing Lester in “American Beauty” before his rising popularity saw him taking on more traditional roles. The casting of Spacey though is a great as he is perfectly able to project the intellect of Doe, while at the same time carrying the air of doubt around whether he is who he claims to be or if it is just another game. Of course Fincher plays up such moments giving us more insights into the killer psyche, via John Doe's rambling journals and fractured title sequence than he does actual shots of the man until the very end, which is a gamble which certainly pays off in spades in the memorable finale.

Written by screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker while on his daily commute to his then day job at Tower Records, the film really embodies the distain he felt for New York at the time even if the film never mentions the name of the city. Sadly while this film would serve to revitalise Finchers’ career after the misfire of “Alien3” this would sadly be to date the high point of Walker’s career, with his follow up “8MM” falling foul of the studio system, with director Joel Schumacher siding with the studio over the darker elements of the script, unlike Fincher who fought to keep the script in tact. Since then he has mainly worked script rewrites and several shorts aswell as the forgettable wolfman remake and in many ways becoming a cautionary tale for screenwriters especially when this script shows so much potential, its sad to see it being crushed by the studio system. The real genius of the film though is that it is still as watchable after the 100th time as it was the first time I saw it, which honestly is something of a rarity for thrillers and when combined with such memorable visuals and plotting which etch their way into your mind it truly is an essential watch.

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