*. Not to keep you in suspense: I don’t like this movie very much.
*. In the first place, it has a very crude and obvious script by Andrew Kevin Walker (who appears in a cameo as the dead guy in the first scene). We can hear something wrong right away. The very first exchange has Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) visiting a murder scene and asking one of the cops on duty if the child of the deceased had been a witness to the murder. For some reason this makes the cop go off on him.
*. Why does the cop snap like this? What are we missing? The cop is upset just because Somerset is showing some humanity? I know that’s a theme that will be returned to, but it’s done so awkwardly right out of the gate that it’s baffling. Usually characters are allowed to develop somewhat, but here they are made to reveal themselves with jarring abruptness. So, first scene: Somerset is someone who cares. This makes him a pariah. He is about to retire. Got it.
*. Then Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) shows up. Somerset asks him “Why here?” to which Mills responds “I don’t follow.” Really? The movie just started and I had no problem understanding the question. But in another few seconds we already have Mills saying he doesn’t want to start off with the two of them kicking each other in the balls. Ah. So that’s it. Conflict. Got it.
*. I’m not even sure the things the characters say make sense. After explaining to the chief that they are dealing with a serial killer Somerset declares that he “can’t get involved in this.” What? What? Somerset, you are involved in this. The fat guy is your case.
*. Or is it? The next time we see the detectives together Mills is working on the gluttony case, apparently alone. What happened?
*. I honestly don’t know if it bothers people that the words coming out of characters’ mouths don’t make any sense, or are seemingly without any motivation. But motivation is something that a lot of writers don’t feel much concerned with these days, which is a point I’ll be getting back to shortly.
*. Leaving aside the matter of dialogue we can take a step up and talk about character. The script’s set-up here is as old as film itself. This is a buddy picture. Cop buddies.
*. One of the cops is old, nearing retirement, and jaded without being cynical. He speaks in a mellow bass and delivers terse, gnomic wisdom about how “So many corpses roll away unavenged.” Yeah. Or, when he gets in a cab and is asked where he’s headed he says “Far away from here.” Cool, man.
*. For what it may be worth, Roger Ebert found Freeman’s lines to be “wise, informed and poetic.”
*. The other cop is young, a hot-head, brash and idealistic. He also can’t seem to keep his hands out of his own hair.
*. The old cop is wine, the younger beer. The old cop lectures the young cop on how they must divorce themselves from their emotions, and the young cop responds that he feeds on his. The old cop plays by the rules, the young cop makes his own. And so it goes. You can write it yourself.
*. David Fincher initially didn’t like the screenplay because it seemed too much like a generic cop buddy picture. I guess he just rolled with it.
*. Going from dialogue to character to plot we reach another level of banality. This isn’t just another buddy picture but another psycho-killer thriller, presumably made more serious by the fact that the killer has a library card and has been inspired by classic depictions of the seven deadly sins. Personally, I don’t think that’s any more advanced than the motivations of the average giallo slasher, but we don’t live in a literate age so such a cheap display of vulgar learning passes for high-brown erudition. In the future, anyone who reads will be accounted a genius.
*. That probably sounds a bit snobby so let me fill it in a bit. In the first place, the script is snobby itself by making Somerset seem like some kind of retired university don as he visits the cavernous empty library to look at actual books, while Mills pronounces the name of de Sade like that of the pop singer (“Sharday”), hasn’t “seen” The Merchant of Venice, and, worst of all, thinks Dante was a “goddamn poetry-rhyming faggot piece of shit.” Of course h doesn’t have a clue what the seven deadly sins are! He’s just a boor. That apparently screenwriter Walker didn’t know what they were either until he began doing his own “research” for the film suggests a certain cultural anxiety.
*. But Somerset, like the killer, has a library card and it’s a place he’s obviously familiar with so this gives him special insight into the crimes. How special? Why, did you see how he found the words GREED and GLUTTONY written by the killer at the crime scene and was able to deduce that the killer was inspired by the seven deadly sins? And he also knows that there will likely be five more murders! Seven minus two! Whoa! I mean . . . that’s some detecting.
*. But perhaps the audience really is as far behind as Mills. Perhaps they don’t read. Or can’t read. When Victor, the sloth victim, is discovered we see the word SLOTH painted in large capitals above his body. Somerset enters and says . . . “Sloth.” That’s an assist for people who, literally, can’t read.
*. The problem with this, to state the obvious, is that Somerset’s vast erudition, and all of those books that he gets out of the library and photocopies, don’t help at all. They aren’t even relevant. For example: as Mills points out after his own bit of research, Dante’s Purgatorio begins with the punishment for the sin of pride. If he’d wanted to pursue the point he could have talked about how pride has always been considered the chief of the seven deadly sins, the one that gives rise to and controls the other six. But Somerset quickly shuts this line of inquiry down, saying that the books were just an inspiration and not a guide.
*. Which means that the books are useless. Mills is better off sticking with his Cliffs Notes. When I first saw this movie (which is when it came out) I’ll admit this pissed me off. I assumed that all the library research was going to pay off in some way and that they would probably learn that pride had to come last. But instead nothing at all is made of the conceit. It’s just a faux-intellectual throwaway.
*. Because everything is so obvious, and John Doe actually wants to get caught, the plot has to work hard to give our detectives something to do, or even just to make it seem as though they’re actually detectives. Did you see how they discovered that the first victim was actually bound hand and foot underneath the table? And the cops didn’t notice that? Hell no, that’s what the dicks are for!
*. This leaves our boys, and the movie, in limbo (that’s in Dante too, by the way). At one point Mills even says that he’s sick of waiting around the precinct doing nothing. “Why sit here rotting till the lunatic does it again?” he barks in frustration. But the script can’t think of anything intelligent for the detectives to do until another body shows up. Unless it’s Somerset’s library idea.
*. Is the library check a stretch? Yes, but a telling one.
*. To begin with, the FBI man puts his neck on the line (“a big risk”) and runs the library check for . . . fifty bucks and whatever Somerset has in his pocket?
*. Then, it’s interesting how Somerset assumes that a well-educated man like the killer doesn’t have basic books like Paradise Lost or The Divine Comedy at home but has to sign them out of the library. I mean, he does have a library at home but the only books in it are ones that he’s written. “Just his mind poured out on paper.” A man ahead of his time. Imagine what he could have done with an Internet connection.
*. I’ve already said how nothing Somerset learns from his books is of any use in solving the crime. What is of use? Data mining library records. There’s a moral to that story.
*. Of all the books to give the killer away, the one Somerset picks out is by Thomas Aquinas. Because Aquinas wrote something about the seven deadly sins. Whatever.
*. But enough about the script. If there’s one thing Se7en gets a lot of praise for it’s its look. As with the writing, however, I found this to be mostly conventional and crude.
*. It is always raining. Fine. Just outside the city it’s a desert, but I’ll suspend disbelief.
*. The look is neo-noir. I suppose it’s the present day, but it looks like the 1940s. Think Blade Runner. And that’s not as big a leap as it may seem. Sure Blade Runner was neo-noir set in a futuristic landscape, but look at some of the interiors here, in particular the library and the locker-room at the police station, and ask yourself if they wouldn’t fit right into Ridley Scott’s vision of Los Angeles 2019.
*. I liked the set designs, though they are unoriginal, too dark, and too much alike. Is every apartment in town such a shithole except for the uber-rich ones owned by the lawyer and the model? And why the hell is it so dark? The cops are always using flashlights even in the daylight. Perhaps nobody in these shitty apartments is paying the electric bill, but in the police chief’s office he has the blinds open on the big windows behind his desk but has no less than three lights turned on. And it’s still dark!
*. One thing that stands out is the neon cross hanging over John Doe’s bed. That seems way too kitschy for the refined, intellectual killer. He may be crazy, but he has better taste than that.
*. As for John Doe’s motivation, that’s another throwaway. He’s preaching, Somerset tells us, “his murders are sermons.” How disappointing this is.
*. Kevin Spacey is a fine actor, but he’s wasted here despite being given a substantial amount of screen time to do his thing at the end of the movie. Why is he disappointing? Because clearly this movie is the son of The Silence of the Lambs. Even Howard Shore’s score, which I like, is effective mainly because it sounds so much like a retooled version of the work he did on that film. Because what would inspire him to do anything different?
*. But compare Hannibal Lector to John Doe. Lector is charismatic, intelligent, and most of all interesting. We hang on his every word. Doe is a cliché, a somewhat prissy religious nut who has nothing at all interesting to say or tell us. I see this inability to imagine an original or interesting villain to be yet another failure of the script.
*. I also though this a case of a movie having its cake and eating it too. It has something to mutter about fighting the good fight for decency, but revels in grotesque cruelty. We feel no sympathy for Doe’s victims, who are in the end only stage dressing. Even Gwyneth Paltrow spends most of the movie looking like someone who needs to be put out of her misery.
*. I’m not saying Se7en is a terrible movie. It’s slickly directed and has a better pace than most of Fincher’s later work. The opening credits set a standard (for good or ill) that would be often imitated. I really like the chase scene. But these are just the trimmings. The story and the look are both clichéd and the whole thing seems like a lot of heavy breathing over nothing. It isn’t a thriller or a mystery but just something to be endured. That it was so well received, by critics and audiences alike, says something about what our expectations had become for this kind of a movie. Despite all of its nods to high culture it asks nothing of us but a very simple gut reaction. It manages this much, but let’s not kid ourselves about how low a bar has been set.