Se7en (1995): A Descent Into the Inferno of Humanity

“Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘the world is a fine place and worth fighting for’. I agree with the second part”. Those are the final lines of dialogue uttered in David Fincher’s serial killer classic Se7en from 1995, spoken by Morgan Freeman’s character detective Somerset. Not only is the line incredibly profound, it speaks to the films themes and nature, as one of the darkest and most nihilistic thrillers ever to come out of the Hollywood system. But it’s also one of the finest, with everyone involved, from Fincher to Freeman to co-star Brad Pitt (and yes, even Kevin Spacey) and the entire cast and crew for that matter doing a first-rate job at delivering a unique, stylish and entertaining film.

Fincher reportedly approached the film like the kind of film William Friedkin would’ve made after The Exorcist, and rewatching the film made me feel as if Se7en was in some aspects the horrifying lovechild of The French Connection and The Exorcist in a strange way; a nightmarish combination of the horror sensibilities of The Exorcist and the police procedural sensibilities of The French Connection (as much as I love Fincher’s Se7en, I would honestly liked to have seen Friedkin take a stab at this material, although he already kinda did that in Cruising). Friedkin and Fincher also share a fairly dark view of humanity which comes across in their respective works. But they approach their works in different ways. Whereas Friedkin mostly opts for a more realistic depiction, Fincher opts for a more stylized work. In fact, I’d go as far as to suggest that Se7en is Fincher’s most expressionistic film.

Right from the opening credits, we’re made aware of what we’re in for as an audience. Fincher belongs in the rare class of filmmakers like Hitchcock and Scorsese who utilize the opening credits in a creative way to inform the audience in some way of what they’re in for, and give a sense of what the film is going to be like, unlike most opening credits where it feels more mandatory and something to be over with. The opening titles are filled with contrasted lighting, heavy use of blacks, greys and occasional reds, extreme closeups of sharp and threatening objects and scribbly text, all set to a remixed version of Nine Inch Nails’ song Closer (which foreshadows Fincher’s future collaborations with Trent Reznor).

The rest of the film reflects these credits. The film is gorgeously shot by Darius Khondji, who infuses the film with a brownish color tone alongside the high-contrast lighting style. The film also, surprisingly for a Fincher film, contains numerous uses of handheld cameras, which are primarily used during moments of great uncertainty for the detectives. In contrast, Doe is often shot from low and/or slightly tilted angles, giving him a sense of superiority over Pitt’s and Freeman’s characters. It also helps that Doe is kept off-screen for the majority of the film, almost making him into a supernatural being who hovers over the film like a demon. But, as Freeman’s character says to Pitt in the film, “he’s just a man.” And he’s played by Spacey as a psychopath, not as a horror movie villain, which further gives the film a blend of creepiness that a more over-the-top performance wouldn’t.

Another key aspect of the atmosphere and the expressionistic nature of the film is the rain. The presence of rain throughout the film helps give the film a sense of dread, doom and hopelessness because that’s what rain does to you (and if you’re one of those freaks who actually like being in the rain, then you need help). You truly begin to understand Freeman’s character’s general cynicism and skepticism towards optimism, and you don’t blame him for wanting to get away from what looks like the city of hell. It also makes me wonder of this was Fincher’s homage to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (knowing how much Fincher loves Alien it wouldn’t surprise me).

And there might actually be more to the Blade Runner connection than I initially suspected. Besides the rain, both films are effectively neo-noir detective films with the detectives (or in this case one of them) wearing a trenchcoat, both films employ very moody and contrasted lighting schemes, both take place in a big one form of metropolis and both films interestingly enough somehow combine the past with the present in their set design and wardrobe. In fact, much of the set decorations and costumes in Se7en look like something straight out of the 1940s or 50s rather than the 90s, almost as if Se7en takes place in an alternate dystopian future.

So Se7en is like an expressionistic nightmare of a movie, that through the filmmaking goes deep into the darker capabilities of mankind. But no matter how ugly and despicable the world truly is, it is worth fighting for something, otherwise, what’s the point?

Published by davidalkhed

Co-creator, critic and columnist for A Fistful of Film.

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