As viscerally disturbing as when it was first released, director David Fincher's Se7en (1995) is a thriller that continues to cast its influential darkness (both in narrative and visually) about our current cinematic landscape. Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker wrote his story during a fallow creative period in New York, and although the city in which the film takes place is never identified, there are shades of Manhattan peppered about the landscape - even though the film was shot in California and Pennsylvania.
Stylistically, Darius Khondji's cinematography for Se7en is a partial send up to 1940s film noir, it's dark, gritty urban landscape,complete with perpetual rainfall, creates a shadowy - often oppressive and depressing - backdrop of constricting uncertainty. The streets in Arthur Max's production design teem with spurious dregs of humanity and emotionless denizens who move, almost paralytic, through the murky recesses of their caged existence. This is a metropolitan wasteland inhabited by the ambiguity of moral and social decay.
Initially, the character of Somerset (eventually played to perfection by Morgan Freeman) was envisioned by Walker for actor William Hurt, while the character's name is actually a send up to Walker's favourite author; W. Somerset Maugham. We first meet William Somerset at the scene of a domestic dispute turned fatal. The bodies of a man and a woman lie in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor as Somerset examines the crime scene.
Enter, Det. David Mills (Brad Pitt), Somerset's new and very impatient partner. From the outset, the two men develop a tempestuous dislike for one another, due in large part to Mill's overbearing 'hot shot' attitude that Somerset chalks up to Mill's youth and inexperience working homicide in his city. Mill's request for reassignment to Somerset's division intrigues Somerset, who is looking forward to his own retirement in seven days with thoughts to escape the nightmarish hell hole he currently finds himself in.
Somerset and Mills are assigned by their Police Captain (R. Lee Ermey) to investigate the brutal murder of a fat man (Bob Mack) who was force fed by his killer until his intestines exploded. At the grim crime scene, Somerset discovers the word 'gluttony' scrawled in bacon grease behind the fridge, suggesting to him that the murder is not random, but one in a series reflecting the killer's zeal for avenging humanity's seven deadly sins.
Realizing that in order to solve this case he will have to postpone his retirement, Somerset begs to be taken off the assignment. His request is promptly denied. However, he and Mills are briefly separated in their duties until a second murder occurs. This time, rich attorney Eli Gould (Gene Borkan) is discovered in his fashionable office, bound and forced to extract a pound of his own flesh (a reference to Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice) in order to atone for his sin of greed. Mills is stumped by the killer's motives but later learns from Gould's wife (Julie Araskog) that the abstract art in her late husband's office has been hung upside down. Behind the picture the words 'help me' have been written in finger prints that Somerset and Mills trace to a local drug dealer, Victor (Michael Reid McKay).
Regrettably, Victor is not their killer, but rather victim number three - his sin; sloth. He is discovered by Somerset and Mills, emaciated, with most of his outer layer of flesh painstakingly peeled away. Unable to add up the clues to any satisfactory conclusion, Somerset rejoins Mills on the case to apprehend the serial killer now affectionately nicknamed John Doe.
At this point in the narrative, Walker's screenplay takes a much needed respite from its gruesomeness to introduce the character of Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow); Mill's congenial wife whose kind facade barely masks her overwhelming unhappiness. Somerset has dinner with Mills and Tracy and the three share in some much needed laughter. Isolated, Tracy later and rather awkwardly confides in Somerset that she has become pregnant and fears the repercussions of raising a child in such an environment.
Shifting focus once again to the murders, Somerset and Mills trace John Doe by his library card after Somerset suggests to Mills that their suspect is well read in the seven deadly sins. Their investigation leads straight to Doe's apartment; a recluse who confirms their suspicions by first taking a couple of pot shots at Mills and Somerset in the hallway and then leading Mills on a harrowing foot chase through the bowels of his multi-levelled apartment complex that ends with Mills almost being shot by Doe in the back alley.
Inside Doe's apartment, Somerset and Mills discover epic volumes of diaries written by Doe that emphasize his irrational thoughts and social judgments. But they arrive too late to save Doe's next victim; a prostitute (Cat Mueller) who has been raped to death using a metal knife-like phallus by her john (Leland Orser) at Doe's gunpoint; the victim of lust. This crime is followed with another female victim, a model (Heidi Schanz) who has been forced to mutilate herself as she represents the sin of pride.
At this point, Doe turns himself in by walking into the precinct and declaring to Somerset and Mills that there are two unsolved crimes remaining in his reign of terror. Doe will lead the detectives to the remaining bodies, but only if they do exactly as they are told. Reluctantly, Mills and Somerset agree to Doe's demands.
With a SWAT escort by helicopter, Mills and Somerset drive Doe to a barren landscape in the middle of nowhere where Doe instructs them to park their car and wait. Presently, a delivery truck arrives with a small package. While Somerset leaves the scene to investigate the contents of the box, Mills holds Doe at gunpoint.
The shocking truth is revealed only by the look on Somerset's face as he discovers Tracy's severed head inside the box. It now becomes clear to Somerset that Doe has made himself the next victim - his sin being 'envy' of Mills, and with his final intention to make Mill's the ultimate victim of the last deadly sin - 'wrath' by forcing Mills to shoot him. Somerset races back to beg Mills not to listen to Doe, but with Doe's confession and the revelation to Mills that his late wife was carrying their child, Mills' surge of disbelief, pain and rage become uncontrollable. He murders Doe using all the rounds in his gun.
The final moments of the film are shared between the Captain and Somerset as a shell shocked Mills is taken away from the crime scene. Somerset explains through a quote by Ernest Hemingway that "the world is a fine place and worth fighting for" with Somerset adding, "I agree with the second part."
Thus ends, Se7en on an apocalyptic whimper. The film is, in fact, a very perverse and overwhelmingly downbeat reflection on societal discourse in general. The claustrophobic cityscape that the characters occupy is bleak with no hope of reprieve and there is little to suggest that life anywhere else on the planet might be better.
At the time Se7en was originally released, this reviewer can recall thinking how brilliant Kevin Spacey's performance was. Time, and renewed viewings have not diminished that assessment. Spacey's John Doe is diabolically cold yet strangely compelling and even moderately sympathetic. When he stands before an entire precinct, calling out Mills' name at the top of his lungs for acknowledgement of his crimes, he is the very essence of a demented Charles Manson-esque martyr. Here is a figure so utterly frayed at the senses, so tragically warped with sadism run amuck, that he is determined to destroy himself to prove his twisted ideology about humanity at large.
It goes without saying that Morgan Freeman delivers a superb turn as the emotionally rumpled and intellectually scarred Detective Somerset. This is a man who has seen too much in his professional calling and it has changed the hot wiring of his very being. The singular casting flaw therefore remains Brad Pitt who, at least by this reviewer's barometer, has never played anything but variations of himself on the screen. As the cocky Mills, Pitt is equal parts testosterone driven bravado and dysfunctional belligerence. Yet, he never seems to entirely assimilate into the role but rather adlibs his own reactions to the lines he's been given, effectively grafting himself on top of the character profile until all we see on the screen is Brad Pitt and not Det. Mills.
In the final analysis, this shortcoming has minimal impact on the narrative - perhaps because Fincher's direction keeps the camera focused on the thriller aspects of his story. We settle on the characters just long enough to appreciate each of them for their fundamental flaws and virtues; our attentions shifting to the quest to apprehend John Doe before he strikes again. The result is that Se7en endures and continues to succeed as a noir styled thriller.
This is a second trip to the well for Se7en on Blu-ray and a more wholly satisfactory offering from Alliance Home Video's U.S. distribution. Alliance Canada released Se7en almost two years ago on Blu-Ray, with an open matte transfer in 1080i that completely betrayed Darius Khondji's spooky cinematography and aspect ratio framing, and with the added insult of bumped up contrast levels that rendered the image brighter than expected . But now we get the 'official' release from Alliance/New Line Home Video; correctly framed in its 2:25:1 aspect ratio and with deep saturated blacks.
Colors are rich and fully saturated. Fine detail is magnificently realized throughout. The audio is the same 5.1 Dolby Digital mastering from several years ago. Extras, including audio commentaries and a vintage featurette on the making of the film, are all direct imports from Alliance/New Line's previously released deluxe packing of Se7en on DVD from 2000. There is one curiosity and one complaint that should be noted between this transfer and the new Blu-ray. First, the curiosity.
The scene after Mills has shot John Doe dissolves to a brief scene where Somerset and the Captain observe as a shell shocked Mills is taken into custody in the back of a police cruiser. Somerset's voice over refers to the Hemmingway quote and the screen fades to black.
On the DVD this sequence appears to have been shot in late afternoon, same as the murder of Doe, with a predominantly orange color palette as the sun sets in the background. However, on the newly minted Blu-ray this sequence looks as though it were photographed in the moments just beyond magic hour, the sky a deep purplish black with only a minute hint of afterglow from the sun coming from the far left of the screen. This reviewer is unable to recall exactly how the film played in theatres. Suffice it to state that in either incarnation, the final moments of Se7en lose none of their bleak, emotionless impact.
Now for the complaint. Se7en on Blu-ray loads with three theatrical trailers for lesser movies currently available from Alliance that you cannot fast forward through. Instead, you are force fed each movie preview in rapid succession. This reviewer cannot stress how annoying this feature is to the collector. Trailers are fine - but the choice of viewing them ought to be made by the consumer and not the company hoping to sell a few more discs on the side. Nevertheless, this version of Se7en comes highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)