We have written here before about the how anticipation of film releases has vanished thanks to worldwide release dates. It was Kermode, then the regular critic on Mark Radcliffe and Marc Riley’s Graveyard shift slot on Radio One, who whetted the audience’s appetite for Se7en that had been released in America to great reviews. Expectations were not high as Fincher’s previous release was ALIEN3 (1992) and the consensus on this unnecessary sequel was that it was an honourable failure, revealing too much of Fincher’s grounding in music videos, with its cross-fades and sharp cutting. Kermode promised that SE7EN was something special, and was particularly enthusiastic about the ‘silver-retention-process’ that was used to create a greater tonal quality in the dark scenes. These are enhanced in the blu-ray version where the spectacularly gruesome set-pieces are pin-sharp.
Detective William R. Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is about to retire but he is drawn into ‘one last job’ alongside recently transferred David Mills (Brad Pitt) who is both hot-headed and wet-behind-the-ears when compared with the veteran cop. The screen-play is modelled on THEATRE OF BLOOD (1973) and AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1945), creating a series of well-staged, elaborate murder scenes as a serial-killer appears to be murdering his victims in the spirit of the seven deadly sins: an obese man has been stuffed with food until his stomach bursts; a rich attorney is been bled to death; a child-molester is fastened to his bed for a exactly a year; and a prostitute is murdered using a bizarre S&M costume.
The art direction is wonderfully dark and authentic, the rain drenched streets and grimy apartments recreate a hellish urban environment; I have never been able to think of ‘Magic Tree Air Fresheners’ the same way since seeing hundreds of them dangling in the apartment of the ‘sloth’ victim. In addition to the perfect visual style, Fincher gets the performances spot on. Freeman brings considered gravitas to the role of Somerset, handling the police procedural stuff with cool aplomb, and the sensitive moments between him and Mills’ wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) where she reveals her pregnancy that she has kept from her husband, is done with an apealing tenderness. The scene-stealing performance by Kevin Spacey creates a new paradigm of serial killer menace, his creepy depiction of John Doe as a measured psychopath with tiny, tiny writing jolts the film into another gear when he makes an appearance.
With the direction of the actors and the visual grammar he uses, Singer appears to be rewriting the rules of noir, which he went on to develop further in THE GAME (1997), THE FIGHT CLUB (which also included Pitt and a lactating Meatloaf) (1999) and ZODIAC (2007). By using the bleach-bypass processing, the silver is retained in the film stock giving the chiaroscuro effect deeper contrasts. In effect, he was also building up on the genre defying SILENCE OF THE LAMBS that had put conventional horror into the mainstream, but Demme’s film was a literary adaptation of Thomas Harris’ pot-boiler, SE7EN is pure cinema.
Kermode was right to say SE7EN was something special, he wasn’t right to insist to Mark and Lard that Elvis was still alive.