Whenever I hear the word “thriller”, I immediately think of Seven, the 1995 David Fincher film about two cops trying to catch a serial killer who bases his crimes around the seven deadly sins. The movie has been a favorite of mine from way before I became a full-fledged film fanatic, one of those movies I would always watch when I saw it was on TV. It was actually the last movie I ever bought on VHS. I never did watch that tape for whatever reason, and as history tends to repeat itself, the eventually purchased DVD also sat on my shelf for way too long unwatched. Watching it now, some years after the last time, I am very much reminded of why I love the film so.
The parts that have always stuck with me through the years are the murders. Understandably so, as they are pretty damn gruesome, especially back in 1995 when the world was still a decade away from Saw signalling the torture porn genre’s arrival to the mainstream (the Greed and Pride killings in particular seem like prototypes for Jigsaw’s games). While they’re shocking (though a lot is implied rather than shown), they’re not merely used for shock value. Rather, they add to the overall sense of a city gone to hell, where evil and corruption have taken over and the people on the good side of the law fight a continuously uphill battle.
The two detectives we get to follow are familiar character types but fascinating characters. Morgan Freeman‘s tired old one-week-from-retirement Somerset ranks among the actor’s most finely nuanced performances. The character gets fleshed out with little touches here and there that help create the sense that he’s not just contained to the movie’s running time: his camraderie with the library guards, his expertise at his job, his calm nature, his weary submission to the fact that the city is the way it is. His partner Mills, the brash ambitious newcomer played by Brad Pitt, also gets similar expansion, even though this is still Freeman’s movie. The interplay between the two is engaging, with the initial getting-to-know-each-other phase being nicely understated. There’s little time for them to bicker and fight when there’s a deranged serial killer on the loose. They buckle down and work together, with some kind of friendship eventually materializing. Again, this buddy-cop routine has been done many times before, but there’s a reason for that and in Seven it works better than most other films of the type. We also shouldn’t forget about Gwyneth Paltrow as Mills’ wife Tracy. Her character only has two scenes of real note (one when Somerset is invited to their home one evening, the other a diner meeting with the older detective), but she makes the most of it and provides a valuable additional perspective to the movie. Not everyone can fight bravely against evil. Most abhor it and suffer. Tracy Mills is one of the latter. Newly moved in to the unpleasant city, she’s unable to adjust to it.
Another striking thing about the film is the visual aspect. Seven looks stunningly great in all its ugliness. Fincher and cinematographer Darius Khondji create harrowing environments for our heroes to dive into. As the detectives stalk the killer, the camera stalks them and we tag along on the ride. The locales are dark and filthy and there’s unrelenting rain pouring down. Along with Howard Shore‘s foreboding score, it creates a very palpable atmosphere.
Seven was only Fincher’s second feature-length film. The first one was Alien 3, a production fraught with executive meddling that soured the director on movie-making for a couple of years. Despite his limited experience, he expertly holds the viewer’s attention. There is but one real action scene in the film (a tense chase sequence through an apartment building and alleyway), but there is always something going on. Another victim discovered, new evidence found and so forth. And when the investigation hits a snag and comes to temporary halts, there’s captivating character development instead. Seven is for me the quintessential modern crime thriller. Fincher would follow up this triumph with a line of other thrillers stretching into the aughts, before moving on to other Oscar-friendlier genres with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Social Network, with mixed results (The Social Network was a very strong film, but Benjamin Button disappointed me immensely). The upcoming The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo readaptation, which still seems like an unnecessary waste of his time to me, nevertheless excites me due to it being a master of suspense returning to his roots. Time will tell if he has another Seven in him or not.