Se7en ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Part of Hoop-Tober

“Anyone who spends a significant amount of time with me finds me disagreeable.”

Gluttony

He has taken on too much. Det. David Mills (Brad Pitt), deliberately uprooting his wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), from upstate and dragging her to this lurid hellhole, all out of a naïve desire to save the world. So much ambition, he nearly chokes on it. So much chatter, he sucks all the air from the room.

Det. William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) long ago saw his passion wither. He is one week from retirement, too exhausted to keep pace with the horrible goings-on around him. Like his spiritual descendant, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) in No Country for Old Men, he sees the world as a cruel and ugly place, one which he cannot wait to leave behind. Away from all the incessant noise, the aural clutter of traffic and shouting and delinquent activity outside his windows. Off to a place where it doesn’t rain every day. A place of peace and quiet, where he can hear himself think.

But Somerset’s intelligence gets the best of him. He cannot deny it—it is what makes him such a gifted detective, even if it annoys the cocky Mills (and seemingly everyone else on the force). Somerset knows a personally motivated work-in-progress when he sees one. Being force-fed to death is such a psychologically invasive way to die. It is a crime of passion and of patience. The corpulent corpse rotting in its disgusting apartment, its skin a spiderweb of veins, is only the beginning of something complicated and grotesque, something epitomizing Somerset’s desire to wash his hands of this grey, grimy city.

Greed

Somerset’s recusal is of no matter to Mills. More for him, he thinks. A shocking crime, ready-made for the front page, and all to himself. And where better to hoard acclaim than in an opulent high-rise law office, a tower to mammon, a place that exists chiefly to be looked upon and showered with prestige and lucrative billable hours.

Bills are not usually paid in pounds of flesh outside of Shakespeare (“Merchant of Venice.” “Didn’t see it.”), but then again invoices aren’t usually so explicit about their avaricious impulse. Blood on the floor neatly arranged in Roman letters has a way of attracting attention—it is not the calling card of a wallflower.

Somerset is erudite and wise. He sees a pattern developing and heads for Chaucer, Dante, Aquinas, immersing himself in a sea of ghostly green lamps. The books' illustrations offer a reminder that, despite the detective’s growing despair, evil is not new under the sun. And now the seven deadly sins, played out in intricate and horrifying detail, each a condemnation of self-idolatry referenced with the darkly ironic purpose of idolizing the man play-acting them.

Mills, by contrast, is cloddish and dim, straining over photographs in his apartment. He is aimless where Somerset is methodical. He is loved by his wife where Somerset is alone.

Sloth

A quiet evening at the Mills apartment. Tracy, more perceptive than her husband would like to admit, senses an opportunity to bond with someone in her new city, to help Mills forge an alliance with a useful partner. Dinner and wine, a loving couple teasing each other and a self-deprecating older man. The train rumbling past breaks down defenses while threatening the china. The realtor failed to mention it. Sloth is not mere laziness, it is the failure to do right by one’s obligations.

That has never been our killer’s problem. He is thrifty and organized and always committed to his plan. His mission is warped, but he executes it with vigor. Fingerprints on a wall spelling out a mournful plea. Making use of each and every part of the animal—a mindful butcher.

It leads in the direction of a drug-dealing pederast, a direction Somerset spots as too convenient. This molester is not reading the Divine Comedy, nor has he any interest in the morbidly obese. All pieces must fit, but this one is jagged. No, the molester has been tied to his bed, locked away—as he should have been long ago—slowly, almost lovingly, starved to near death. Desiccated and rife with sores, he can no more remember his name than Mills can recall the name of his former partner shot down his rookie year. Life is disposable. Sloth is not mere indolence, it is the flourishing of evil under the unwatchful eye of good yet diffident and forgetful men.

Lust

David Fincher’s films specialize in the fetishization of filth—he gives life to the notion of beauty as residing in the eye of the beholder. The dark, dank rooms lit only by carefully placed beams of light recall Spielberg’s favorite awe-inspiring ploy only to pervert it in favor of something ugly—or, at least, something that should be ugly. But Fincher, with his muted color palette and his careful, elegant compositions—ably assisted by cinematographer Darius Khondji—has a way of finding the grandeur in the mundane and the elegance in the grotesque. If Se7en’s progeny are the annoyingly interchangeable ocean of serial killer films and television procedurals that followed its success, Fincher makes sure that the cost was worth it by painstakingly crafting a pitiless-yet-beguiling universe. A world drenched in the baser impulses, inciting unspeakable desires pulsating just beneath the surface.

Those impulses, when properly channeled, lead the species to propagate. But even for a beautiful young woman married to a beautiful young man, procreation is daunting. Without friends or family nearby, without a job to distract from the degeneracy on every corner, bringing a child into the world can seem not just intimidating but foolish and wrong. Even lust put to God’s good ends bows under the weight of so much sorrow. At least it’s better than death by improvised S&M device, a bloodletting as scarring for the man forced at gunpoint to pathologize his lust as for the woman on the receiving end of John Doe’s (Kevin Spacey) lesson in chastity.

Pride

And who is John Doe? He is God’s messenger, and he is ever so proud of his work. His apartment is less a home than a shrine to the scourge of casual sinfulness to which he must bear daily witness. There is, as they say, a method to his raging madness. He will get the world to take stock of its wrongdoing, and in the most memorable possible way.

Of course, we all know which way pride goeth, whether it’s a model’s choice to go permanently to sleep rather than awaken to a reconfigured face or a madman’s symphonic diatribe against modern callousness. Doe sees the world much as Somerset does—neither can stand living in a place that encourages apathy as a virtue. But pride—self-regard mutated into contempt and hatred of others—pushes Doe’s despair into action, even into an endgame which Doe by design cannot survive.

Envy

The talent onscreen is nothing short of brilliant, particularly Freeman, whose effortlessness must make most actors seethe with jealousy. Lending his innate gravitas to the stock role of the older, wiser half of a mismatched pairing, Freeman imbues Se7en with a world weariness that makes his desire to quit seem like good sense rather than cowardice. Pitt uses his jittery 1990s energy productively as the overeager, inexperienced half of the duo, a man whose admirable goals are undone by his hotheadedness and inattention to detail. And Spacey brings a chilling intelligence to Doe, a bright, well-bred, educated, moneyed lunatic who, thanks to a perversion of the American dream of being a white male, is afforded the opportunity to play out his messianic dreams as a piece of anti-moral-degradation performance art. Spacey’s icy stillness plays off of Pitt’s over-caffeinated hyperactivity beautifully, with Freeman’s composure keeping everything in balance. Together they make what could be an interminably long car-ride conversation dynamic and fleet. A casting director would kill for such a team.

Figuratively, that is. But others truly do kill for similar reasons. They pass beyond the understandable feeling of discontent at seeing one’s own shortcomings implicitly highlighted by another’s strengths. They covet. Another’s blessing must be undone—the only cure for one’s envy is another’s deprivation.

Wrath

Outside of the city, it is no longer overcast. Rain no longer pummels the weary traveler. For the first time, the sun shines down. But industrial totems are never far away, not with a web of power lines slicing the sky into pieces.

The sunshine should allow for clearer sight, but darkness is not all that obscures Mills’ vision. The problem, he thinks, is a handful of crazies, the periodic lunatic flailing about and wreaking havoc. The sense of “otherness” is disturbing in its unknowability, but comforting in its false sense of security. If the problem is more endemic, more fundamental—as both Doe and Somerset believe—then comfort is a scarce resource indeed.

Hence Somerset’s repeated admonition that Mills not dismiss Doe or his ilk as “just” loonies. Their madness both grows out of and infiltrates the world around them, impacting one in ways one couldn’t imagine. Best to be prepared for what is—eventually—to come.

Fincher’s camera knows this, cross-cutting between the helicopter’s vantage and low angles of Doe’s hectoring and medium shots of Somerset’s thoughts playing across his face. The cutting and close-ups increasing in frequency, in step with the heart rate, mirroring the rising emotions. One can never truly inure oneself to deep, pitiless cruelty, but acknowledgement of its existence can cushion the blow. Somerset has spent years preparing for this—his pragmatism is his saving grace. But Mills is too scattered and impulsive not to be blindsided by the evil that men do. With no prefabricated outlet, his wide-eyed fondness for justice gives way to explosive anger. So much pain and suffering, as much as anyone you could encounter—and still Hell to look forward to.

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