“Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer and then you’ll notice you have their strict attention.”
The tone is extremely dark as Noirvember continues with a look at David Fincher‘s neo-noir from 1995, Se7en. In an unnamed, rundown city Detectives Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) investigate a number of murders that follow the seven deadly sins: Pride, Wrath, Lust, Gluttony, Sloth, Greed and Envy.
Se7en takes no time at all to depict the violence and crime in this city, opening on a crime scene where soon to be retired Detective Somerset finds a man has been murdered. In a perfectly encapsulated moment, providing context to the character of Somerset, he puts his colleague on edge by being inquisitive and questioning about the circumstances of the crime, when all everyone else wants to do it get the hell out of there.
The discovery of the first sin murder, gluttony, in a dark and dingy house where a man has been forced to eat and eat and eat until he burst, albeit with a little help from the killer kicking him, is as dark as it sounds. However, it is only a taste of the rest of the sin murders to come, but it is a fantastic scene to place all of the characters, including who these detectives are up against.
Low lighting pervades this film, with locations having only a single small window or, more usually, needing a flashlight to create a strong contrasting lighting scheme. The overall look of the film was achieved by using a process called bleach bypass, retaining the silver in the film stock which deepened the darker and more shadowy scenes. The other thing that dominates the film is the demoralising, heavy rainfall that is almost constant throughout the whole of Se7en: depressing the viewer but also symbolising the turmoil that these central characters are going through.
Detective Somerset is the very depiction of a modern noir protagonist: Sticking out like a sore thumbs amongst the rest of the department with his world-weary tone, built up from a career spent fighting crime in this hell hole of a city, but also wearing the noir uniform of trench coat and fedora. Pairing Somerset up with the green and eager Detective Mills only succeeds in emphasising these noir traits.
SOMERSET: Did you read in the paper today, about the man who wanted to take his dog for a walk? And, how he was attacked? His money and his watch were taken, and then, while he was still lying unconscious, out cold, his attacker stabbed him with a knife in both eyes. It happened last night, a few blocks from here.
CAPTAIN: I heard.
SOMERSET: I have no understanding of this place anymore.
CAPTAIN: It’s always been like this, Somerset.
Somerset tries his best to extricate himself from the situation he knows is going to drag out but he can’t, he’s been drawn into this. Mills on the other hand is unaware of his path already being chosen for him and his place in the scheme of things. The chase scene from suspect John Doe’s (Kevin Spacey) apartment is superbly done and depicts the self-destructive path of Detective Mills as he follows John Doe blindly down from the apartment. Down they race into the darker areas of the building and the rainy city streets, symbolic of descending into ever deeper and more dangerous depths, like in Dante’s Inferno through the circles of Hell.
John Doe: “We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home and we tolerate it,” he says. “We tolerate it because it’s common, it’s trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon and night. Well, not anymore. I’m setting the example”
Although the emphasis is on the religious aspect of the sins and the punishment meted out the inclusion of, and relating it to, the texts of Dante’s Inferno and Milton’s Paradise Lost amongst others gives Se7en a lot more weight than it would have otherwise with the focus being on the killings and grotesque torture, both mental and physical, that the seven sins revolve around.
Director David Fincher bought into Se7en’s depiction of evil and the moral emptiness of society and it was up to production designer Arthur Max to create this dreary and miserable world and capture the composition of the populace in the dismal, rain-soaked streets. Indeed even Detective Mills’ wife Tracey (Gwyneth Paltrow) purity, being the blond-haired, blue-eyed high school sweetheart, is tainted by this dark, wet, grimy city. The biggest contrast is held for last as the stark change in weather and lighting between the rain drenched streets and dull colour palette is blown away with the glaringly bright sun-filled journey out into the desert-like wasteland.
Alongside the shock of the downbeat ending, which required some staunch resistance against the production company to keep as the theatrical ending, it the completeness of the film that makes Se7en stand out for me. Just like with John Doe’s meticulous planning, preparation and patience to complete his story, Se7en also takes its time. Slowly moving the pieces into place, revealing the concept, expanding it and then bringing it all back together in a finale that must rank among one of the best, completing the circle.
Detective Somerset, whilst seeming downbeat and stressed for the whole film, is the embodiment and shows each of the seven virtues, the inverse of the seven sins: Chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, humility. With Somerset at one end of the range and John Doe at the other it is left up to Mills to fill the middle ground, making it that much harder to know which way he is going to fall in the pivotal moment at the finale.
Somerset: Ernest Hemingway once wrote ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for’. I agree with the second part.