20 years ago, New Line cinema dropped a dark hearted cinematic wake up call in the form of David Fincher’s immortal serial killer thriller Seven. It made a legitimate star out of Brad Pitt, giving a nervously twitchy and playfully cocky performance as a young cop who thinks he knows what he’s getting himself into, and it further cemented Morgan Freeman’s status as a premiere acting force, giving him the chance to riff on the sage, retiring detective character made famous by so many genre offerings. And rather importantly, Seven boldly announced Fincher as a serious directorial talent to contend with, affording him the chance to take material that was directly up his casually cruel cinematic alley, and put his own distinct and rigorous aesthetic stamp all over it. To this day, the film remains frightening and startling to watch, as the twists and turns still feel fresh and diabolical, even when you know how it’ll all finish up. I vividly remember seeing this film on opening night in the theater, at the age of 15, on the same weekend that Showgirls opened, and I can still feel the unease that settled in over the sold-out crowd during those final moments, when we all realized what exactly was in that box out in that field.
Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker’s brilliantly constructed screenplay withstands the utmost scrutiny, and demands total respect; this is a perfect cinematic onion, revealing layer upon layer of themes and narrative implications as each section is peeled off and removed. One of the most fascinating aspects of the entire film is that while it’s a crisply plotted procedural, the psychological undercurrents were never glossed over, with the film exploring the true root of evil, with explanations that feel scarily honest and all too believable. And the fact that the ending remained in tact, after much deliberation and wrangling and ultimatums, is still one of those “Thank The Cinema Gods” moments where the money people and the creative entities could all come to terms with exactly how they knew a film should finish. Darius Khondji’s elegantly nightmarish cinematography is the stuff of legend, each shot museum worthy, while also displaying a sense of grit and atmospheric dread and danger that immediately pulls the viewer into this hellish world on display (wisely, the exact city in the narrative is never explicitly mentioned). Arthur Max’s haunting production design evoked urban decay in ways that few modern films have ever done; this movie feels like it’s rotting at the core. The exacting editing by Richard Francis-Bruce knew exactly how to accentuate each and every scene for maximum impact, while the unnerving score by Howard Shore filled the background, never overpowering, always accentuating. And it goes without saying that the opening credits sequence is one of the most dynamic and influential bits of title design ever put on screen (this is an area that Fincher has always excelled at in all of his incredibly stylish feature films).
When Kevin Spacey shows up at the top of the final act the movie somehow gets even more sinister than it had already demonstrated, and the way he needles both Pitt and Freeman during that infamous car ride is a full-on demonstration of how Spacey knows exactly how to own a scene with total command. While attending California State University at Northridge, I had the insane opportunity to view Seven on a frame-by-frame basis, and studying how Fincher controlled his filmmaking was more than eye opening. Close to 98% of the film is shot with a stationary camera, only going hand-held in a few key instances (the hall-way shoot-out near John Doe’s apartment; portions of those climactic moments out in the field), and it was thrilling to see how Fincher and his team were able to heighten fear and suspense more with camera set-ups and pacing than anything else. Seven leaves more up to your imagination than it was credited for doing, as way too many people complained of excessive violence, which, to be honest, just isn’t there on the screen. Yes, clearly, there are more than a few gruesome sights on display, but in comparison to some other genre entries, Seven feels carefully and intelligently restrained in every single area, while always allowing for the idea of horrific human behavior to be lurking in every corner. This is a great and influential piece of filmmaking that ages like a fine wine.