Se7en (1995) is such a great thriller, yet at the time it came out I had difficulty really positioning the movie (I was 13 then). I remember the movie being really a part of the then-popular MTV-culture. It had David Fincher as a director, who was mostly famous for his music videos (for George Michael, Madonna, amongst others), it had Brad Pitt in the lead and Nine Inch Nails in the soundtrack. It also was extremely popular in high-school as this violent and subversive thriller that went beyond your parent’s classic thrillers.
But it didn’t feel classic to me at the time. Maybe because it was so popular with teenagers, or that the talent behind the movie wasn’t really known by me at the time. David Fincher had only directed music videos and the critically panned third Alien movie. He was still a decade away of his streak of classics like Zodiac (2007), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), The Social Network (2010),The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011) and Gone Girl (2014). Furthermore, Brad Pitt was still more of a pretty boy than the truly capable actor he later became.
But eventually I submitted to Se7en and began to recognize the quality of its writing, acting and visual style. Especially in its cinematography I began to see the uniqueness that went beyond simply polluting every image with rain and underexposed darkness. The movie actually has a wonderfully glowing warm light which pierces through the darkness in almost all shots. Yes, the movie is dark, but Se7en also does a good job of contrasting that darkness with a warm light that surrounds its characters.
That warm lighting helps tremendously in evoking the friendship between its two protagonists, Somerset and Mills. In their scenes of research and detective work, it almost feels cosy how they interact and work together. It’s a quality that is often ignored in the discussions about Se7en. Yet if the movie had been purely bleak, desaturated darkness, it would have become unwatchable. And it’s not. It’s actually a very entertaining movie to watch most of the time. Which is important, because it allows us to empathize with its protagonists, to feel for them and make us hope they succeed. This emotional investment is eventually brutally punished by Se7en’s nihilistic ending, but that ending wouldn’t have resonated as well if we hadn’t felt any warmth or positive emotion in the preceding two hours.
Beyond this, cinematographer Darius Khondji also composed some wonderful shots which supported, or enhanced the narrative through clear visual cues, especially in the latter parts of the movie.
Actually, for much of the running time, Se7en looks rather straightforward. Most of the clues and details are presented in the art-direction, and the camera doesn’t often add more layers of meaning to the scenes, it just helps us in framing these clues in mysterious and arresting ways.
But this changes as the movie approaches its ending, and we begin to spot some cool subtext within the frame. Take, for example, the shot where our heroes drive through the field of electrical towers with serial killer John Doe in the back.
The whole scene is about the tension of John Doe willingly surrendering himself to Somerset and Mills, and us wondering what part of his masterplan we still haven’t figured out. We expect that in some way, John Doe will have the upper hand, which suggests he is leading our heroes into a trap. And this is visually conveyed in this image of the car entering this web of wires, as if they’re being caught in a spider’s web.
Even more effective is a later shot, one of the last ones in the movie, and this actually is my One Shot. The shot comes at the dramatic turning point of the final scene, where John Doe has convinced detective Mills to kill him, because of the revelation that Doe has murdered Mills’ pregnant wife. The whole scene builds up to this point, and works brilliantly in slowly making us realize how far ahead of the game John Doe is, and how helpless our heroes are in partaking in his schemes. As Somerset rushes towards Doe and Mills, the cinematography gradually becomes more confined and claustrophobic. We close in on the faces and the wide-angle helicopter views disappear from the scene, it’s only close-ups now. But as the close-ups on Mills are becoming more and more frantic and jittery, John Doe is filmed calm and composed, and just before he reveals his act of murder, from a low angle, making him seem omnipotent. Now focus on this framing, because I believe this composition is transposed into the One Shot-frame.
When Mills finally breaks down and shoots John Doe, we cut to an almost POV shot from the dead body of Doe, as Mills keeps firing bullets into him. Three things are brilliantly captured in this single frame.
One; the relationship between Mills and Somerset has broken down. We see Mills giving in to wrath as Somerset has his body turned towards the scene, and the camera. They look separated in their composure, but the distance between them is enhanced even more by the electricity pole standing between them.
Which brings me to Two; John Doe is master over all. To me, the electricity pole looks too much like a human character to not see John Doe reflected in it. Especially when you remember the omnipotent framing of him previously. The pole looks like a menacing person standing in between Mills and Somerset, as if he’s orchestrating the events. To me, that’s John Doe, that’s his image, his power to separate our heroes and dominate the outcome of the scene, even in death.
And then finally, three; I love how we have a POV of John Doe as Mills empties his gun on him. Because in a way he is also executing us, as an audience, as spectators to this horrible event. Us witnessing the horrible acts of John Doem, and being entertained by them, makes us complicit in a way. Fourth-wall breaking can be a bit on-the-nose in some cases, but here I appreciate it. Stylistically it doesn’t disturb the flow of the scene, but it’s just interesting enough for us to take notice and interpret it.
And it connects to a idea that always hangs around these dark, violent movies; how can we be entertained by these horrible stories? Can we be criticized for enjoying violence? I wouldn’t say Yes, nor say No, and these kinds of shots do neither, but they do hint at the dilemma.
So that’s three layers captured in one shot. I’d call that effective visual storytelling.