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Why It Works: Seven

04.29.2016

Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.

****SPOILERS AHEAD****

A young, white, wisecracking cop with a short temper. An older, sophisticated, black detective seven days from retirement. A diabolical killer on the loose. Anyway, enough about LETHAL WEAPON 3; this week, we're looking at David Fincher's psychological thriller SEVEN (or SE7EN, if you like). Set in a miserable unnamed city where it seems to rain all the time, following a series of grisly, disturbing murders, and featuring an ending as upsetting as it is fascinating, SEVEN is considered one of the darkest and grittiest studio films out there- and also one of the best. Here's why it works:

WHY WE LIKE THE CHARACTERS:

Perhaps one of the most interesting devices in storytelling is the inclusion of two diametrically opposed leads. We find ourselves identifying with one, the other, both, or neither depending on the scene. It also allows for some fascinating dialogue, in which the story's themes are discussed rather than preached. In David Mills, we have the sarcastic husband who keeps his ties pre-knotted partnered up with William Somerset, the erudite loner who lines his accessories on the dresser at night and carefully lays out his suit. While the characters come off as polar opposites at times, their shared goal to catch a killer overshadows much of the discord. Moreover, each character helps combat the bleak nature of the film in his own way. Somerset's refined, distinguished nature brings a level of class to the film (as does Morgan Freeman himself), while Brad Pitt's smart-assed, impatient Mills allows for moments of levity and immediacy and gives the average viewer a "regular guy" to latch onto. Similarly, in just a few scenes, Gwyneth Paltrow's Tracy shines a white light through the filth of the story, representing hope and purity in an otherwise depraved world.

Costume design at work: Mills is always untucked, unironed, and slightly disheveled (while Somerset's three piece suits fit perfectly).

Finally, while he doesn't show up until the final thirty minutes of the film, John Doe is the axis around which SEVEN revolves. While he is certainly the villain and beyond redemption or sympathy by the time he makes his entrance, John's viewpoint makes a strange bit of sense in the world we're presented. While the detectives wait for fingerprint results, bribe the feds for library records, and analyze clues and classic literature- and still only catch their killer when he walks into their precinct with his hands in the air- John takes matters into his own hands, dealing out justice Old Testament style. While it's easy to say anyone can come up with his own ideas of right and wrong, John Doe specifically uses the idea of the seven deadly sins, whose origin has its roots in Biblical, Greco-Roman, and early Catholic teachings. Rather than inventing his own system, Doe is using a system of morality widely accepted throughout the Western world, begging the question of why his methods should be seen as wrong when the law ignores or allows sins every day. When we finally meet our criminal mastermind, he is brought to life by the incomparable Kevin Spacey, who plays John Doe as a thoughtful, witty, smug, and calculated man rather than a crazed maniac, thus bringing an unsettling amount of reason to a character we feel obligated to despise.

"Oh... he didn't know."

WHY WE CARE:

For two movies that couldn't be more different, it's appropriate that my last Why It Works was on SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD. Just like SCOTT PILGRIM's seven evil exes, SEVEN gives us seven deadly sins, presenting us with a countdown to an inevitable finale. Once we realize the killer has a master plan, we can't help but want to follow along as the mysteries unfold; we only see the aftermath of the killings, after all, making us feel in a way like we ourselves are hunting him down. Along the way, we have our main characters' personal stories to keep us from feeling like we're just watching a grim procedural. Somerset wants to keep his distance from such a high profile case but can't help but get involved, Mills wants to prove his worth as the new guy on the force, eventually recognizing how invaluable Somerset's help is, and Tracy has to decide whether to bring a baby into the world, confiding in Somerset what she has yet to divulge to her husband. While the crimes have us fascinated, the characters keep us invested.

"There are seven deadly sins... Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Pride, Lust, and Envy. Seven."

WHY WE'RE SATISFIED:

While almost every element of SEVEN has been praised at one time or another, it's almost certainly the film's finale that stays with audiences most. After turning himself in to the police, John Doe leads Mills and Somerset out to the desert to find his last two victims. As a mysterious box arrives via courier, John calmly tells Mills how he visited Tracy and, letting Envy get the better of him, took her head as a souvenir. When Somerset's reaction to the box confirms its contents and Mills learns Tracy was pregnant at the time of her death, he executes John Doe, thus becoming Wrath. We could get into a whole debate about the ins and outs of the ending alone. How can Mills be the Wrath victim if he doesn't die? Why do Tracy and the baby die if Doe's whole thing is about killing sinners? The agreed upon answer is generally some combination of the Mills family representing a single unit and the fact that David himself doesn't have to die to be a victim (in the same way the Sloth victim is still alive at the time of his discovery). While these questions certainly make for interesting discussion, the fact of the matter is that John Doe orchestrated an intricate series of murders, culminating in his own, successfully carrying out his plan and leaving the good guys in agony. It's certainly not a happy ending, but it's about as jaw-dropping and powerful as any out there.

"Ernest Hemingway once wrote, 'The world's a fine place and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part."

WHY WE REMEMBER:

If there's one thing missing from David Fincher's recent work, it's the dark, moody grit he brought to films like SEVEN and FIGHT CLUB. Surely, THE SOCIAL NETWORK and GONE GIRL call for a more crisp, sterile look and feel, but there's something to be said for a film that can pull you into a such bleak world simply using production design, lighting, and a ton of fake rain. Fincher is a master craftsman, and SEVEN, the first feature film he didn't walk out on, is an incredible early example of his abilities. The opening titles alone set the scene for the world of the film, with its handwritten credits, grimy Nine Inch Nails remix, and decayed, sepia-toned imagery. Howard Shore's haunting score sits below the surface adding tension and swells to near-melodramatic levels for the film's most intense moments. Andrew Kevin Walker's script deals with some very unsettling issues in such a balanced and refined way that even those who would normally never watch such a disturbing film are captivated. The cast is perfect, with each of the four leads going above and beyond the call of duty, and the cinematography and sound design add to the mystery, tension, and gloom of it all. Joining the ranks of PSYCHO, THE EXORCIST, and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, SEVEN proves that unpleasant subject matter doesn't have to stand in the way of crafting a classic.

Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!

If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at brianbitner@joblo.com.

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Source: JoBlo.com

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9:35AM on 05/01/2016

Masterpiece. Plain and simple.

Although I would not say the whole thing is about killing sinners. To me it was about punishing them. If you think about it, John Doe never really kills any of them he forces them to face their sin and choose. The Fat man would rather keep eating and die a slow painful death than just take the bullet. The prideful girl would rather die than live the rest of her life with a cut up face. The lawyer cut his own flesh off, trying to survive by cutting off the least needed flesh instead of just
Although I would not say the whole thing is about killing sinners. To me it was about punishing them. If you think about it, John Doe never really kills any of them he forces them to face their sin and choose. The Fat man would rather keep eating and die a slow painful death than just take the bullet. The prideful girl would rather die than live the rest of her life with a cut up face. The lawyer cut his own flesh off, trying to survive by cutting off the least needed flesh instead of just taking a bullet. You could make a case for who was actually being punished from lust, the whore or maybe the guy who screwed her with a giant bladed cock was the lustful one who now has to live his life screwed up because of what he did under duress instead of saving her life by sacrificing his own. And because Doe became envious and killed Mills wife and unborn child he need to be punished, forcing Mills to become wrath and live his life punished by his losses. None the less it is a perfect film in my book. It draws you in to this world and rubs your face in atrocity but even when the crimes are never really shown as they happen, but rather discussed and toiled over through photos and observation, you feel as if you were a witness to the violence. Amazing stuff.
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12:20AM on 05/01/2016

Still the best

This was my favorite movie for a number of years. I still don't think there's anything that quite compares to it.
This is possibly the most tonally consistent movie I've ever seen, with every performance, every set, EVERY line inhabiting the world that has been created.
Upon reflection, I think that keeping the location of the story ambiguous is a stroke of genius, as you can just lose yourself in the grime without thinking "hey, this doesn't look like Chicago..."
There are VERY few
This was my favorite movie for a number of years. I still don't think there's anything that quite compares to it.
This is possibly the most tonally consistent movie I've ever seen, with every performance, every set, EVERY line inhabiting the world that has been created.
Upon reflection, I think that keeping the location of the story ambiguous is a stroke of genius, as you can just lose yourself in the grime without thinking "hey, this doesn't look like Chicago..."
There are VERY few movies that have aged as well as Seven. I re-watched it a year ago, and I felt like it looked better than ever. The fact that there isn't a drop of CG in it can probably account for this.
The opening credits have been duplicated probably hundreds of times by now, but they're still unrivaled. The sheer amount of work that went into them alone has been the subject of numerous articles.
I still haven't found a worthy successor to Seven. Tonally, I think the closest anything has come has been Prisoners, but it deals with very different subject matter. I hope that Fincher has something else like this up his sleeve at some point. I'm sure the poor fucker is getting tired of serial killer movies though. :)
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5:14PM on 04/29/2016
I love this movie. I agree 100% with everything written and the Hemingway line in the movie is one of my favorite film quotes.

When I was in college, I took a Literature class that centered out the seven deadly sins. We read Dante's Inferno, and briefly studied other works on the subject (most of which Mills read the Cliff Notes for in the movie). During one class, we learned that the teacher had never seen Se7en. We told her about it, she rented it the following weekend, and she
I love this movie. I agree 100% with everything written and the Hemingway line in the movie is one of my favorite film quotes.

When I was in college, I took a Literature class that centered out the seven deadly sins. We read Dante's Inferno, and briefly studied other works on the subject (most of which Mills read the Cliff Notes for in the movie). During one class, we learned that the teacher had never seen Se7en. We told her about it, she rented it the following weekend, and she immediately brought it in for the whole class to watch. She interrupted the class syllabus for a week so we could discuss the movie and it's relevance to the class subject.

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5:17PM on 04/29/2016
Haha, that's amazing! I remember a philosophy teacher in college teaching us about Descartes' brain in a jar theory, and then we learned he had never seen The Matrix. He did not proceed to bring it in and discuss it, though, so you win by a mile!
Haha, that's amazing! I remember a philosophy teacher in college teaching us about Descartes' brain in a jar theory, and then we learned he had never seen The Matrix. He did not proceed to bring it in and discuss it, though, so you win by a mile!
9:54AM on 05/01/2016
That is awesome. My kind of professor. The closest I came was in my short story and novel class the instructor showed us Young Frankenstein because we were reading slapstick at the time. I remember I was the only one in the course who laughed out loud when Inga said; " He would have an enormous schwanzstucker." I guess the others did not get it, because I was looked at by the rest of the STIFFS in class.
That is awesome. My kind of professor. The closest I came was in my short story and novel class the instructor showed us Young Frankenstein because we were reading slapstick at the time. I remember I was the only one in the course who laughed out loud when Inga said; " He would have an enormous schwanzstucker." I guess the others did not get it, because I was looked at by the rest of the STIFFS in class.
-6
12:05PM on 04/29/2016

4/10.

The last part of this movie was a punch to the stomach in the best way possible. It was creative and unexpected. However, I wasn't that impressed with the rest of the movie. And yes, I considered the year it came out. That's why I said that.
The last part of this movie was a punch to the stomach in the best way possible. It was creative and unexpected. However, I wasn't that impressed with the rest of the movie. And yes, I considered the year it came out. That's why I said that.
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11:19AM on 04/29/2016

Disturbing to this day....

When I saw this on its original release, this was one of the few films I've ever seen that stuck with me. I couldn't sleep that night . Not that I was scared of some boogeyman or something; but the subject matter forces you to think about what's going on on screen. This David Fincher full strength, no compromise. It shocks me to this day that he was able to get this made with the ending intact. Everyone brings their A game in this, especially Kevin Spacey. He might not have a lot of screen
When I saw this on its original release, this was one of the few films I've ever seen that stuck with me. I couldn't sleep that night . Not that I was scared of some boogeyman or something; but the subject matter forces you to think about what's going on on screen. This David Fincher full strength, no compromise. It shocks me to this day that he was able to get this made with the ending intact. Everyone brings their A game in this, especially Kevin Spacey. He might not have a lot of screen time, but when you finally meet the guy everyone's been after in the film, you can't take your eyes off him. From the off kilter credits setting the tone, to the perpetual rain. Fincher takes two genres ( the slasher killer and police procedural ) and combines them into something original, and horrific. This film ain't for everybody. The theatre I saw it in was dead quiet at the end. Outside of The Mist, no major studio release I can recall kicks you in the gut like this one. it hasn't lost any of its power either. Brilliant and totally uncompromising. an absolute must see.
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11:09AM on 04/29/2016
I think it works because of the set up - the 7 deadly sins. They all lead the audience to start the countdown to the last sin and we tag along for one wild ride. Apart from that, we also get two interesting characters, wonderfully portrayed by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt. The movie invests on these two characters and it pays off in the final climax. Seven is one of the best action thriller movies ever made.
I think it works because of the set up - the 7 deadly sins. They all lead the audience to start the countdown to the last sin and we tag along for one wild ride. Apart from that, we also get two interesting characters, wonderfully portrayed by Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt. The movie invests on these two characters and it pays off in the final climax. Seven is one of the best action thriller movies ever made.
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