Fresh off the notoriously frustrating Hollywood movie-making experience that was Alien 3, David Fincher bounced back with one the best thrillers of the 1990’s. New Line Cinema released Fincher’s Se7en in the fall of 2005, giving the acclaimed director his first major theatrical success. In spite of its grim subject matter, Se7en scored big at the box office. Similarly, critics were impressed with the movie and its nihilistic tone. Today, horror fans and critics alike consider Se7en among the scariest movies ever made. From its visual style and thematic treatment of the subject matter, to its shocking ending, Se7en remains one of the influential horror-thrillers of the last 25 years.
Fincher’s Thriller Would Anticipate the Next Decade of Horror
Technically, Se7en isn’t a horror movie. Part psychological thriller, part neo-noir crime drama, Fincher’s follow-up to Alien3 would anticipate, if not influence, horror in the next decade. With his background in directing music videos, Fincher’s editing and visual style was far removed from 80’s slasher horror movies. From its dark, grimy apartments to the grey, rain-soaked streets, Se7en’s visual style found its way in the grungier horror of the 2000’s. For instance, Marcus Nispel’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake and Roland Joffe’s ugly Captivity wove Fincher’s visual style into their backgrounds.
…Fincher understands that what you don’t see if often scarier than what’s put on screen.
To some extent, Se7en also anticipated the more gruesome horror that defined the 2000’s ‘Torture Porn’ exemplified by the Saw franchise. Ironically, Se7en doesn’t actually feature the explicit violence it influenced in the horror genre. And it’s also not the first movie to use the premise of sins being visited upon the sinners. Two decades earlier, Vincent Price classic The Abominable Dr Phibes was based on a similar concept. What distinguishes Fincher’s classic is Se7en’s ability to disturb without showing the actual violence. Fincher never shows the ‘head in the basket’ or the ‘lust’ death. Instead, the filmmaker relies on exposition and slick editing to paint a picture for the audience. But’s the audience’s imagination that fills in the blanks. Se7en trusts the audience, and Fincher understands that what you don’t see is often scarier than what’s put on screen.
Se7en Explores The Dangers of Apathy
In addition to his visual handling of Se7en’s material, Fincher and writer Andrew Kevin Walker’s story is open to several thematic interpretations. Several horror movies in the next decade may have imitated the movie’s look, but none of these movies grasped Se7en’s more meditative approach to the material. For some cultural critics, Se7en and its re-visiting of the ‘seven deadly sins’ may frame the movie as a conservative morality play. Moral decay – visually and in the story – are prominent features of the movie. This extends beyond the idea of sins being turned against sinners. Over and over in Se7en, Fincher throws out examples of the casual disregard most of have when confronted with the worst the world has to offer.
“Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for’. I agree with the second part.”
But Se7en also addresses hope amidst world of apathy and moral depravity. Though audiences will walk away from the movie with David Mills’ tragic ending in their minds, it’s William Somerset’s arc that’s the heart of the movie. Cynical and world-weary, Somerset’s lack faith in humanity contrasts with Mills’ hopeful outlook. Somerset, for instance, cautions Mills about being the ‘hero’. He warns Mills that people don’t want ‘heroes’, they’d rather “eat cheeseburgers, play the lotto and watch television’. The extent of his malaise with the world is displayed as Somerset recounts his pressuring a past girlfriend to abort their unborn child. Nevertheless, Somerset ultimately refuses to walk away from the case. And by the end, Somerset re-affirms a basic sense of hope. In the movie’s final voice-over, Somerset remarks, “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for’. I agree with the second part.”
Se7en Would Elevate the Careers of its Stars
At the time of its release, Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt both had impressive filmographies. In particular, Freeman was already a strong, recognizable supporting actor. Key roles in The Shawshank Redemption, Glory, and Driving Miss Daisy had established Freeman. Prior to Se7en, Pitt was distancing himself from the ‘pretty boy’ label. Risky roles in serial killer thriller Kalifornia and Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It went against expectations. But 1994 soapy western, Legends of the Fall, aligned more with young fans’ vision of Pitt.
For Pitt, Se7en would re-affirm his versatility as a performer.
With lead roles in Se7en, Freeman and Pitt established themselves as versatile lead actors. Freeman’s commanding performance proved he could carry major Hollywood movies. Following Fincher’s haunting chiller, Freeman would go on to headline major movies. Today, he is one of the most recognizable actors in the world. For Pitt, Se7en would re-affirm his versatility as a performer. Subsequent roles in offbeat movies, including Twelve Monkeys and Fight Club, would cement his legitimacy. And while she only has a small supporting role, Gwenyth Paltrow broke out in Se7en. Not surprisingly, bigger roles quickly followed for Paltrow. Not bad for a movie where she’s likely best remembered as the character who ends up with her head in a box.
Se7en A Classic That Retains All Its Power to Shock
The best horror movies, regardless of age, remain powerful and shocking. Neither The Exorcist nor The Texas Chainsaw Massacre have softened over time. Similarly, David Fincher’s Se7en has lost none of its ability to provoke. On one hand, Fincher’s visual aesthetics would inform a decade of horror movies that followed. Yet Se7en demonstrates a much better grasp at how to handle its violent subject matter. Visceral and disturbing, Fincher never over-indulges with graphic violence. And the movie’s thematic treatment of its content elevate it above anything ‘Torture Porn’ produced. After nearly a quarter of a century, Se7en belongs on horror fans’ ‘must see’ lists.