The Films of David Fincher – Se7en. (Film Review)
Se7en is the second time David Fincher has insisted on a weirdo number title that doesn’t make much sense other than to look kewl, but fortunately it is the last. It is also the first time we see Fincher in all his 126 minute glory after the debacle three years earlier of the third Alien picture; so now he is back to being the adman, working on music video, and sworn off all film making, a career he’d longed for since he was eight years old. the story goes New Line had refused Andrew Kevin Walker’s script because of the now (in)famous head in a box ending, preferring it rewritten as a detective noir, but when they sent the script to Fincher offering him the project, they accidentally sent the original script and Fincher took the project based on the original end, and strangely, because he saw the film about a meditation on the evil within us all, rather than a police detective thriller. If Se7en is a meditation on the evil within, then god help us, because as Mills (Brad Pitt) says to Somerset (Morgan Freeman) several times through the story, John Doe (Kevin Spacey) is mad, and no matter how much you want to dress him up in the admiration we all have for a passionate dedication to our individual projects, what gets us in with Se7en is the torture porn, not the important statement on psychological depth. Se7en never once turns the camera on the fascinated viewer, it merely tells a story very well, and its subject choice reveals a talent Fincher has for tapping into a cultural zeitgeist (interestingly Kevin Spacey was John Doe and Kaiser Soze of The usual Suspects in the same year) that can sell a product or a story, but leaves the creative thinker at the margins of the goings on, and never the subject of it. Fincher never once makes us ask ourselves why we want to see images of a man who has eaten himself to death, he just gives them to us, standing by our side, pointing outward at the evil we “get” and “chose” not to “be”. It’s a horrible waste, because the film screams for the point to be made, through Somerset’s self-reflection and Tracy Mills’ (Gwyneth Paltro) external observations (as the film stands she is barely more than a head in a box) and painted precisely as it is with just slight variances to both those characters lines, the film could have been a masterpiece of societal observation instead of a glamorous cop flick that becomes all about its gruesomeness. As we will see, Fincher is completely capable of this level of observation, because he goes there in his best film Zodiac, but he pulls away from it in Se7en, speaking to his overall problem of subject versus object – holding a mirror up to the people (art) or giving them what they want (advertising).
If there is a running theme of intellectual constraint in Fincher’s films, there is a compensatory splendour in his equal parts subtle and intensified aesthetic pallet, that sees much of the impact of atmosphere he tried to evoke in Alien³ fully realised. The world of Se7en is made unrelentingly bleak, all the unlit rooms and preoccupation with torch-light notwithstanding. It almost always rains in this unnamed burg where no one switches a light on, nothing really works and people inspecting apartments never think to stay in them to look around for longer than five minutes. Fincher used bleach bypass to retain the silver in the film stock, washing everything in a tinted grey that gives flesh both living and dead a pasty quality. Nothing, even Paltrow’s face and hair, is luminous. Blood is always a dark, liquid earth brown.
Those who fought for the ending, Fincher and Pitt specifically, knew to do so because it is the punchline that gives Se7ven its heart, the rest of the script being too clichéd (the retiring cop and the rookie newbie, the last-minute superior serial killer, the visits to the library to sink into his “mind”, the black cop white cop Lethal Weapon thing) to amount to much, particularly when stripped of the only punch that would have given it teeth that I articulated in the first paragraph. Despite its fame, it’s a rather terrible script, with the clues being far too difficult to convincingly follow – Somerset finding bits of plastic in the victims stomach and working out that it is floor scrapings from moving the fridge, to the ludicrous fingerprints behind the painting – and the crimes getting sillier and more ambiguous (surely “Envy” is the least convincing of all) as the great actors are forced to repeat horrible lines and act out of character, such as telling your husbands prickly, unlikable, retiring partner that you are having a baby, without communicating with him first. Add to that all the in-your-face literary references (including William Somerset’s name) that imply anyone reading Dante and Chaucer can catch a serial killer, just as long as you don’t take a short cut and reference the school notes. If it wasn’t for the way the thing looks, and the way it’s slung together, you’d have another disaster on your hands.
Yet Fincher could see a script that lent itself to potent mise-en-scène and in many ways, this will define him as a director from this film forward, which is partially why Se7en is usually thought of as his first film. Fincher the adman knew to sell John Doe as a concept right from the beginning. The opening credits (something Fincher will become more and more famous for) are devoted to the serial killer, the part of us Fincher falsely imagines Se7en is highlighting. Actually, Fincher plays it safe offering John Doe to us packaged (Brown box delivered if you like) in sleazy funk, indulging us ah-la-music video. The opening title becomes it’s own narrative concept and it’s not till later in the film we realise we were watching John Doe, as Fincher would say, “working on some really evil shit.” The choice of (another) bad script and the focus on the serial killer is where Fincher creatively sells out, because it’s not until Zodiac that he realises just knowing what we want and giving it to us doesn’t make him deep or even clever. He needs to focus on us rather than feed us, instead adopting the central conceit of advertising that assumes because it knows what will motivate us, that it is smarter than us. Se7en is a beautifully crafted film, and Fincher draws solid performances from his talented cast, but his own timidity prevents it from being a truly great film.