While Alien 3 marked David Fincher’s entry into feature films, Se7en was where he really made his mark, establishing many of the stylistic signatures and conceptual concerns that haunt his body of work up to the present. Se7en also set the stage for a new iteration in 90s thrillers, both in its vision of a black detective paired with a white ingenue, and its peculiar taste for the exotic potential of crime scene investigation. Looking back, Se7en also feels like the beginning of a rough trilogy that continued through The Game and Zodiac – films that tried to map urban space through games in the same way that 70s thrillers tried to map urban space through conspiracy. In Fincher’s hands, the game became a continuation and condensation of the conspiracies that haunted 70s culture, culminating with Zodiac, which squared the circle – as did the Zodiac killer’s symbol – between these two forms of mapping.
The plot of Se7en is familiar to anyone with the faintest interest in movies during the 90s, and especially to people who grew up in the 90s, for whom it became synonymous with cinematic extremity – with the exotic limits of what could be shown or even implied on the big screen. In other words, this was a hard R rating, meaning that it became a kind of threshold-object for the small screen as well, a hallowed item at the video store, where it was almost impossible to rent out without an adult surrogate. Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay situates us in an unnamed American city, where a serial killer is committing a string of ghastly crimes based on the seven deadly sins. The first victim is punished for their perceived gluttony, the second for their greed, and so on, creating a morbid fascination about the victims to come, but also an overwhelming sense of inexorability and doom. The case is investigated by Lieutenant William Somerset, an aging cop in his last week before retirement, played by Morgan Freeman, and his sidekick, a mere rookie, Detective David Mills, played by Brad Pitt.
Like The Game and Zodiac, Se7en is as much a portrait of a cityscape as a killer, although this city largely consists in what is not shown. For the first two acts of the film, we barely glimpse an outside – the action starts in medias res, without a single credit title, or even a proper establishing shot. When the credits do roll, they entirely consist of grating, abrasive close-ups, further embedding us in the action and refusing us any safe critical vantage point. Nor do we start with any sense of the police force as an institution – it takes us a while to see police headquarters, and even then we only glimpse it fleetingly, as Somerset and Mills are forced to form their rapport in the midst of the very first crime scene, where the action opens. From the start, then, Fincher removes the mobility that normally sustains cinematic detectives, so that the entire investigation, and the entire film, feels entrapped by the killer’s bizarre game.
Darius Khondji’s cinematography is as important as Fincher’s direction in this respect, suffusing every scene with a pallid light that feels as if it’s been filtered through several panes of glass, or reflected off several different surfaces, before it finally reaches the focus of the scene. Together, Fincher and Khondji occlude the sky in virtually every shot, until the film appears to be taking place underground, underwater or in some post-apocalyptic future that takes place entirely indoors. When we do get fleeting establishing shots, if you can even call them that, they typically only feature a tiny, grudging sliver of sky – at most. While windows do exist, Fincher continually refrains from following the gaze of the detectives out towards the city, with the result that every gaze out feels like a gaze in, and the city becomes a projection of our deepest fears about the case, rather than a discrete space in itself. The film is especially hesitant to show the outside world, or provide any context, when it comes to crime scenes. We rarely spend any time on the streets where they occur, evoking a city comprised entirely of macabre crime scenes – or crimes scenes as a synecdoche for the city.
This claustrophobic aesthetic is further compounded by the continuous rain – rain so heavy that it removes any clear sense of exterior space. Rain here functions as an erasure, rather than an extension, of the physical environment. From the opening tracking-shot, which traces Somerset and Mills as they move past a sea of umbrellas, rain stands in for an outside world that can be felt, but can’t be seen or discerned through regular sensory processing. For long stretches, the rain makes it hard to literally hear the characters, forcing them into a sotto voce delivery that submerges their voices, pushes them partly underground. One of the heaviest and darkest showers imperceptibly bleeds into the subway just outside Mills’ apartment – so loud and close that everyone is forced to stop talking as the room rattles in its wake. As this scene clarifies, an outside world does indeed exist, but it can’t be directly seen or apprehended – and it is just this resistance to normal sensation that makes it so oppressive.
Se7en thus plays a critical role in the convergence of rain and cyberspace over the 90s, culminating with the rain-streaked streets of The Matrix. This cyberpunk rain (the Black Rain of Ridley Scott’s 1989 thriller) suffuses the film with an odd yellow-green light, bathing the action in the glow of future digital devices. All the scenes take place at an indeterminate time of day or night – or an indeterminate space between day and night – anticipating a digital media ecology in which regular diurnal rhythms are subsumed into the inward glow of the monitor. This is particularly damaging for the street, which has ceased to exist as a public space in Fincher’s vision. In its place, we’re presented with a series of pathologically involuted spaces – nearly all the victims are found in their own personal space, whether at work or at home, while the killer’s apartment is the most inward-looking space in the film; the nexus between a residence and a darkroom, entirely blacked out to the faintest traces of the street.
This emergence of a more globally connected and less individuated cybercity finds expression in Mills and Somerset’s continuous discussions about the nature of this particular city, which extend to Mills’ wife, Tracy, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who has recently moved from an equally amorphous elsewhere. These discussions always move in circles, since they function mainly to emphasise the non-descript nature of this city, and are driven by conspicuous refusals to name the city, which plays as a fusion of New York and Los Angeles. At times, they feel like dialogue from a sandbox game, since they consist mainly of two-handed abstract statements, such as “I don’t understand this place any more” “It’s the way it’s always been” or “Where are you headed?” “Far away from here” or even “How long have you lived here?” “Too long.” The city thus becomes a metonymic chain that can never be traversed, or situated in a more specific space, since “even the most promising clues usually only lead on to others.”
In other words, Fincher presents us with a nexus between space and cyberspace, between city and cybercity – a city on the cusp of digitality, where life always feels displaced from lived time and space, like the low-key jazz perpetually playing in the background. During the mid-90s, directors started to frame this secondary cybercity as a demonic presence in the real city, creating a new appetite for the arcane crime scene as a nexus between cinematic and post-cinematic images. Kevin Spacey, who plays the serial killer here (known only as John Doe) was peculiarly adept at embracing this demonic potential. In The Usual Suspect, his other big role from 1995, he reminds an interviewer that “the greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world he didn’t exist,” while assuming a demonic omniscience himself in the final twist. Something similar occurs here, as Spacey’s character takes on a demonic presence that Fincher associates both with the cybercity and a transition from cinema to post-cinema.
On the one hand, the sheer brutality of the crime scenes in Se7en double down on our material attachment to the film strip – the link between celluloid and the human body. From the opening credits, which are etched onto the celluloid, Fincher continually emphasises the film strip as a material object, although he can only do this by decaying, distorting and puncturing it in a last-bid affirmation of its physicality. In doing so, he anticipates the torture porn aesthetic of the 00s, which forms a later (and more desperate) attempt to affirm the material connection between cinema and the human body. In order to reach this level of bodily involvement, Fincher draws heavily on the Catholic horror that started to peak in the mid-90s, painting the city as a Dantean landscape, and the investigation as an extravagant descent narrative, in which each fresh crime scene promises an even more visceral reaction.
On the other hand, the very extremity of Se7en indicates a certain desperation, and a certain finitude to the kinds of cinematic experience that Fincher is partly invested in here. More bluntly, cinema, as we then understood it, is no longer enough for the film’s yearning to reach out to the bodies of its viewers, forcing Fincher and Walker to resort to literature to augment their vision. Somerset and Mills spend the first part of the case researching Dante, Chaucer, Sade, the Encyclopedia of Catholicism, medieval sermons, and whatever they can get their hands on in order to find a vocabulary commensurate to the killer. Similarly, the film reaches for these sources, too, in order to present a kind of gesamtkunstwerk, an all-encompassing and totalising text that brokers every medium to try and keep pace with John Doe’s scheme.
The serial killer, or John Doe, thereby becomes synonymous with the fantasy of containing this cybercity and navigating the outside that crushes in on the film’s cinematic mise-en-scenes. When Somerset and Mills finally locate the killer’s apartment, and glimpse him for (what they think is) the first time, they’re immediately plunged into a dizzying chase through a labyrinth of continguous (but not continuous) spaces, before he finally vanishes into the most expansive and extensive outside world we’ve seen yet. Similarly, the killer forces the two detectives into a cryptic maze of tunnels and stairways to confront what is arguably his greatest crime (lust), in a foreshadow of the dark web, while also encountering and photographing them early in the narrative, then confronting them with their own images when they raid his house. Placed alongside photographs of the victims, these unwitting portraits of the detectives playfully insist that they (and we) can never think outside the cybercity that John Doe has somehow managed to inhabit through his serial killing project.
For John Doe, embodying this cybercity is tantamount to a religious mission – a mission he completes in the abbreviated third act, when he opens up the film’s exterior spaces to the detectives and the audience. After turning himself in, John Doe promises to confess to all the crimes if the detectives accompany him to an undisclosed location on the outside of the city. During this journey, which Somerset and Mills only accept grudgingly, and under heavy security and surveillance, the entire aesthetic of the film reverses. We see daylight, and then bright sunlight for the first time. A police helicopter provides us with our first really expansive shots of the city. We reach the city limits, and then travel beyond them. All of a sudden, after ninety minutes indoors, we get one panoramic vista after another: a massive train depot, a highway by a river, and finally the sweep of power lines, as dawn breaks over the film for the first time. Finally, the film is just giant golden fields, traversed by police helicopters and cars.
These rapidly expanding spaces culminate with a power grid in the middle of the country. This is the metaphorical outside of the film, and Fincher and Walker’s attempt to visualise the emergent cybercity – a space that only exists to power and network the city. The outside thus turns to be a new kind of networked space, while John Doe’s power lies in his preternatural control over this networked space. Cyberrain gives way to the gleam of sunlight on this digital hub, as Fincher’s rotating helicopter shots continually frame Somerset, Mills and John Doe through the honeycomb of power lines. Here, John Doe demonstrates his ultimate mastery over the grid, timing their arrival so that a delivery driver arrives from the city ten minutes later. This driver functions as the link between city and cybercity, between inside and outside, between street and network, that the detectives have been searching for the whole film. Yet at the very moment he symbolises this link, he also evokes their own severance from it, via the most traumatic severance in the film – Tracy’s head, which he delivers in a cardboard box.
In a final twist, then, John Doe takes the detectives and the audience towards a mythical conjunction of city and cybercity, of physical and digital space, of cinema and post-cinema, only to reveal that he has decisively severed the two more than we ever thought possible. As John Doe’s crime subsumes him into the ether of power lines, the detectives are left with the traumatic materiality and embodiment of Tracy’s head. Cinema becomes a casualty of a new network society, but rather than resist this process, Fincher simply evokes it in the austerity of these closing scenes. For, unlike most films about serial killers, John Doe absolutely has the last word here. Not only does Mills shoot him, thereby turning himself into the last of the seven victims, and so completing John Doe’s plan, but the film never leaves this final crime scene, ending with the most cursory of voiceovers from Somerset before we cut to the credits. Rolling backwards down the screen, they complete the incompletion of this finale, the way it resists the closure of the spaces normally opened up by serial killing in cinema. For Fincher, the network, with its pathologies, is here to stay, which has given Se7en an extraordinary staying power too – like The Matrix, it feels even more contemporary twenty-five years later.