On paper David Fincher’s Seven (1995) sounds like just about every other serial killer movie that came before. You have the senior detective inching his way towards retirement, the hotheaded rookie, and the killer murdering people in the dark streets of the city according to his own twisted logic. Then the movie gets to THAT ending and the answer to the question: “WHAT’S IN THE BOX!?” Fincher and writer Andrew Kevin Walker could have just made a standard serial killer movie with great performances and dark street corners, but by making that uncompromising conclusion they delivered one of the best films of the 1990s.
It is a good thing the movie was made before the rise of social media, because the ending might have been spoiled for many viewers. When I rented the movie in the early 2000s I just knew it was a movie about a maniac who kills people according to the seven deadly sins, I knew nothing about the content of a certain box. Therefore it was a genuine surprise for me to see learn the identity of the actor who plays the killer when he reveals himself, and it was quite the gut punch when his ultimate plan is revealed. I later read an article that said one of the original drafts for the scripts had a traditional final confrontation between the cops and the killer in which good would triumph. It might have been a safer ending, but memorable? Hell, no.
One way in which “Seven” does not play by the rules right from the start is by never specifically saying where the action is set. Filming took place in Los Angeles, but at times the rain makes it feel like New York City or possibly Chicago. Either way, this does not feel like the sort of city where happy people live. One of its citizens has met a particularly gruesome end, tied to a chair and forced to eat until his stomach exploded. A second victim is later found, this one dead from loss of blood and of a pound of flesh. Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) manages to link the two cases together and announces to his superior (R. Lee Ermey) that he can expect five more of these as the killer is basing his killings on the seven deadly sins.
On the brink of retirement, Somerset has a certain respect for the killer’s skills and patience, while his young partner David Mills (Brad Pitt) thinks the killer is nothing more than a lunatic. Somerset wants nothing to do with the case, saying he is too old while Mills is too young, but much to his dismay they are stuck with the case and go further and further into darkness. Unlike many movies in the genre, or the odd episode of Criminal Minds, the audience never sees the murders take place, but instead is left to imagine them as the cops observe the gruesome crime scene or listen to eye witness accounts. One of the most shocking discoveries is the sloth victim, tied to a bed for over a year, which even shocks gung-ho members of a SWAT team.
Gwyneth Paltrow brings a brief respite to the horror as Tracy, Mill’s beautiful wife who humorously invites Somerset over for dinner much to Mill’s surprise. However even that dinner takes a dark turn when Tracy confides in Somerset, and lets him know she hates the city, believing it is not a place fit to raise a child. One could accuse these people of never looking on the bright side of life, but in the particularly city where they live there seems to be no brightness at all. The killer, named John Doe by the cops is merely a result of that darkness.
Silence of the Lambs (1991) won a slew of awards for its direction and performances, while Seven only received an Oscar nomination for editing. Yet when you think about it Silence of the Lambs has a pretty conventional ending, with the bad guy found and the victim rescued, while Seven boldly goes with an ending that makes it rise above all movies that came before or that will come after. Once you learn what is in that box, you can’t unlearn it.