You have to be a somewhat closeted person to get to this day without knowing some of the great ‘twists’ in famous films. I watched Se7en vaguely aware of what happened at the end, and of the person who would be starring in that crucial moment.
Do not read any more if you do not want to know what happened, nor if you want to know who is involved at the end.
There are spoilers ahead…
I’m not doing this to persuade you to read on, but I think it was important for me that I ‘knew’ what happened, as I could appreciate everything else so brilliant about the film. Films with twists sometimes are asking to be spoiled, and Se7en is perhaps one of those. Once you ‘know’ what happens, the notion of a twist takes on an ulterior tone, and elevates this noir about good cops trying to do good in a corrupt world, to a higher level.
Let’s start with thinking about the information the film gives us. It is a film replete with references to culture, both and high and low, references to other images and other films. The film, like any great film, is aware of its own image in the context of others. The film focuses on these murders which are representations of the seven deadly sins; the killer clearly views these as art, but the way Fincher represents them is after they have happened – we only see what there is left to see and as a result, have to do the work of reconstructing it ourselves.
And so the work is like a piece of pop art, a postmodern visual piece that blends high and low references to turn things into potential art. That’s a twist in itself. What’s high is low and what’s low becomes high, or we don’t know what constitutes what. The world becomes unsettlingly unreal but overwhelmingly real seeming. Don’t you think the sauce cans used in the gluttony murder resemble Campbell’s soup cans, already subjected to the attention of art? The murders could be elevated to high art, and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is comfortable to accept that as he searches the library for motions and vindications, empirical support for the murders. These are his clues. Mills (Brad Pitt) however can see no logic, it’s banal and the man is a lunatic. This is not art.
There is no answer, Fincher is making no judgement. This sense however of us, the viewer, making a judgement has never been poised so awfully. One of the ways that Se7en is exceptional is in the sense that it directly asks the viewer, how can you watch this and ultimately how can you take part in this. How can you not make a judgement? But you must make a judgement, these are murders. How can you just sit there and watch it all happen?
The twisting continues. Not just are your guts twisting, so is your perception of the world and your position as the viewer and participant in it. Fincher sets it in an unnamed city that feels incredibly real but isn’t. It feels like something from Blade Runner (1981), the way that the rain persistently falls, and how that world (when I say world, I mean the filmic world) was also full of referents to a past, but present world in the future. Fincher also came from sci-fi beginnings, with his first film the continuation of Ridley Scott’s famous franchise, regardless of how much he wanted to be associated with it. But it’s also Lumet’s Serpico (1973); Mill’s wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) references it at the start, and the film’s constant rain is also reminiscent of its opening. This is oozing noir.
When a news report in the nineties set out to find out who Thomas Pynchon was, the reporter located his home town and decided to leave it there, and reasoned that Pynchon in a sense was ‘everywhere and nowhere’ and perhaps that’s how it should be. Like Pynchon, I get this sense with Fincher, two great postmodernists; his films are everything and nothing. The world of Se7en is a world made from film. We’ve already had Serpico and its similar attempts of somebody trying to do right in an inherently corrupt world (look how often the law gets in the way rather than serves, notably demonstrated in the scene with the killer’s lawyer; this is the sense of twisting again, the world turned upside down). I’ve mentioned Blade Runner but you go back further than this, as it could be the city that held so much wonder and fear in Lang’s (1927) Metropolis and Murnau’s (1927) Sunrise: The Story of Two People, or have we merely run down the plug hole after the shower scene in Psycho (1960: Alfred Hitchcock)?
Isn’t film everything and nothing? Look at the killer. He is called John Doe; in the UK, this might be somebody known as ‘Joe Bloggs’, the everyman. Meet John Doe (1941:Capra) however focuses on a news reporter reluctantly agreeing to cover one last job before being laid off, but suspects and begins to uncover corruption, way beyond the seven days will allow her to report on. This sounds familiar to the situation Somerset finds himself in – his last seven days are tied up in the investigation of this murderer. When we first see the killer though and the brilliantly choreographed chase scene between him and Mills, we see him in a bowler/trilby hat and a long overcoat. He resembles one of Magritte’s men (or Magritte himself) which Magritte said of: “The bowler poses no surprises. It is a head dress that is not original. The man with the bowler is just bourgeois man in his anonymity. And I wear it. I am not eager to singularise myself.” The nineties however, in which Se7en was filmed, and Fincher also directed The Game (1997) and Fight Club (1999) during this time, there were a spate of films that played on this idea of the man who’s presence is not really known but is certainly felt. Perhaps The Silence of the Lambs (1981) pioneered this, and Se7en does a similar thing making the criminal in control of the proceedings and us rarely seeing him. In Se7en this is not obviously known until the end, but it becomes increasingly clear that John Doe has planned every step, right until its tragic denouement. Spacey even has a similar appearance to Hopkins, shaven head, pale face and a down turned, glowering look. And Spacey had effectively played the same role in The Usual Suspects (1995: is this Keyzer himself?)
Spacey might as well be wearing a mask, and he arguably is, as he’s hidden throughout the film. It wasn’t a necessarily commercial reason that they chose to keep Spacey out of the credits I don’t think though, but instead because it emphasises that blankness of the character. With all due respect to Spacey his round face is ‘unremarkable’ in the age of photogenic celebrity, and again, perhaps why Fincher thought of removing his credit. That blankness, that white mask, serves us in being able to project onto it our fears, our personal fears that have come from our minds, but more importantly, positioning him as that bourgoise everyman, the fears about ourselves. Because the thing is, you, the viewer are accessory to the killings in Se7en. Here is the twist; without you the film proposes these killings would not have happened. How can you sit there and watch? There is a term in psychoanalysis – Projection Identification – which means effectively ‘putting’ something in another person so that the person can relate to these projections, and that person who has been projected onto can potentially unconsciously enact this. This is of course what the killer does; he hates gluttony, sloth, so he effectively gets people to embody these things that he hates (the killings are meticulously planned, they are self-fulfilling prophecies, and so they kill themselves in a way). But isn’that what also happens to us? What do we see at the end? Do we see in the box? Do we see the bloody visceral image of the final murder? Depending who you are, this may you surprise you or not, but we don’t. You inagined it, you created the image of it. The history of cinema is the history of the image, but just because it’s there in front of us, it doesn’t mean we don’t do some of the work ourselves. How much do you think you see behind the curtain in Psycho? If you saw it, why didn’t you do anything about it?