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You know, this isn’t going to have a happy ending.


aka Se7en


It figures that the profoundly nihilistic – in terms of cinematic sensibility, rather than necessarily his deepest philosophical beliefs – David Fincher should have wanted the even bleaker ending of Seven. That would be the one without that “worth fighting for” hint of grace he was persuaded to include. It’s the one glimmer of light in this rain-lashed dystopia, and of poetic flair in an otherwise (typically) meticulously controlled movie. In fairness, there’s a lot more humanity on display here than one probably recalls, leading the way as it does with its suffocating atmosphere, but Seven sets out the Fincher table regardless, one of serial killers, mind control and profound despair. It also, in contrast to most of his later ventures, finds him successfully elevating his material in almost every respect.

Essentially, Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay is based on the cheesiest of lurid, pulpy serial-killer premises, the kind of thing that would easily pass unnoticed in the crowded straight-to-video shelves of that subgenre. He hatched it in exorcism of a gruelling NYC experience (where he worked at Tower Records for three years), so his vision of urban hell is at least genuine (as much as Fincher creates a heightened any-city nightmare – you entirely feel for Detective Mills’ wife in her distress). Not that Walker exactly showed a sunny side subsequently. You wonder how much of that is “typecasting” and how much his genuine leaning (Walker has recent collaborations with Fincher’s The Killer and Love, Death & Robots episode Bad Travelling to suggest a degree of loyalty in their relationship; his realised projects have been thin on the ground over the last two decades).

Indeed, while Walker flourishes some fine key plot twists here (John Doe giving himself up, the oft-discussed ending), much of Seven is about texture, atmosphere and brooding tension; it isn’t coincidental that The Silence of the Lambs’ Howard Shore should have furnished the score, one of imminent, almost tangible foreboding and inescapable dread. There are moments of humour here – “He was the funniest guy I ever met”; “Really?” replies Somerset, deadpan; Pitt’s irreverence in the face of his colleague’s sombreness; “Right now, he’s probably dancing around in his grandma’s panties”; “I didn’t do that” is probably the biggest laugh here, when Doe denies responsibility for a dead dog at his final destination – but they barely staunch the flow of grimness. That Fight Club is so funny, mordantly so, makes it something of an exception in the director’s resumé.

The characters are well-drawn standard types, but only so much that the actors are required to fill them out; Freeman’s Somerset would be very different, much less subtle, refined and contemplative with another performer. Pitt embraces the chance to emphasise Mills as an overconfident hothead (one who selfishly dragged his wife into a world of shit to justify his macho ego; Pitt’s work with Fincher is all about the presentation of manly ideals, or undercutting them. This is, perhaps, not a coincidence). Then-Brad-squeeze Paltrow adds a hugely sympathetic turn in just a couple of scenes that, as Pitt noted, gives the picture its heart. 

It may be easier not to give Spacey’s work the time of day in light of his alleged sociopathic predation, and to suggest he was never that great anyway (I’d argue you need simply look to his work before his second Oscar and the difference after it to locate where the substance is in that suggestion). One can’t help be alerted to John Doe’s justification of his treatment of a “drug-dealing pederast” (as far as we know, accusations of drug-dealing haven’t been levelled at Kevin).

Arguably, though, he’s only the most prominent face of dark Hollywood; in this movie alone, you have Freeman (see the allegations regarding his step-granddaughter) and Pitt (an ex-Pitt at this point, although his avatar has never been busier*) in front of camera. Fincher may never have been a Black Hat, but one could be forgiven for concluding otherwise from his work, which might be construed as prolonged promo for MKUltra operations in Hollywood. I’ll give Gwynie the benefit of the doubt, since she seems to have largely shunned TInseltown in favour of vaginally scented candles. Ironically R Lee Ermey is the one suggesting the moderate take here – since his prior career was all about conditioning the armed forces – when he claims Fincher “wants puppets. He doesn’t want actors that are creative”.

Compare that to John Doe’s writing (“What sick ridiculous puppets we are”), and again, one might be forgiven for assuming this is the embodiment of a director faithfully serving an agenda, one renowned for being second only to Kubrick – a promoter then revealer of the method, and a Black Hat turned White Hat – when it comes to meticulous craftsmanship. Fincher has said “I think people are perverts. I’ve maintained that. That’s the foundation of my career”, a cheerful verdict on humanity that steers him closer to another architect of fear, Hitchcock (minus the humour) than Kubrick. Which might explain his limited genre versatility. Hitchcock, of course, gave many viewers their first exposure to movie serial killers in Norman Bates. 

Fincher’s father worked for Life and dabbled in screenplays, while his mother was mental-health nurse. As director, he started out in music videos, one of the major sources of occult symbolism and programming, and had a thing with Madge, an alarm bell in itself. But it’s his dedication to the serial-killer side that is his real tell. Or ought to be. By which, it’s quite possible to be reluctantly plying the kind of fare the Elite favour, but the consistency of tone in Fincher’s work suggests that, if he isn’t and hasn’t ever been on their team – which is my understanding – then he genuinely buys this is the way things are.

We can count Seven, Zodiac, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mindhunter (pretty much an advert for the efficacy of the FBI’s serial crime unit, when he should be asking “Who exactly created what?”), and at a stretch Gone Girl and Alien³ in that list. The forthcoming The Killer is about an assassin (a serial killer by another name; see Dave McGowan’s Programmed to Kill for how the activities blur). Then there’s social engineering and rewriting history (The Social Network, Mank, Zodiac again). There’s also House of Cards (politics), Love, Death and Robots (dystopias, transhumanism) and aborted explorations of mind control (Utopia, Columbine). MKUltra is most foregrounded in Fight Club, where the alter is somehow conjured without trauma, which should be its tell as to what it’s really about (albeit, it’s about lots of things, many of them very pertinent. But this is a character with an alter who starts a terrorist organisation, one convened with military discipline and seeking to subvert societal values; it doesn’t require a lot of parsing). Which just leaves The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

With John Doe, Fincher is both following – as he would rigidly with Zodiac and Mindhunter – and departing from serial-killer lore. One might, if one were lenient to his intent, suggest he was pointing out its foibles. He called Seventhe kind of movie Friedkin might have made after The Exorcist” which tells you everything about the psyche-terrorising influence he had in mind (sure, he was talking stylistically, right?) John Doe isn’t seen displaying the traditional dissociative identity disorder/ MKUltra programming of the serial killer with alters, or affiliation to satanic cults and crime and contract hits of the actual serial killer. And while he is an FBI profiling case in terms of being a loner, his method is unified in theme but variable in procedure (“In fact, it is difficult to find a case study of any serial killer who does leave a distinct ‘signature’ at each crime scene” notes McGowan). 

You might suggest Doe has a (CIA-stooge, psyop in terms of the event) Manson-esque creed, where there is voiced political demonstration behind his actions. That Fincher and Walker leave Doe’s workings vague may be the biggest clue. Aside from the first characteristic, there isn’t much of the profiling about him: “For instance, serial killers are said to act alone, driven to do so only by their own private demons… It is also claimed that serial killers target a particular type of victim, similar in age, gender, race, hairstyle, attractiveness, and other physical attributes… It is further claimed that serial killers follow a readily identifiable modus operandi, with the means of obtaining victims and the trajectory of the crime following a well-defined pattern”.

Mills: Do you know that you’re insane?

John Doe: It’s more comfortable for you to label me insane. I did not choose. I was chosen.

Who I am means absolutely nothing” Doe tells the detectives. He speaks with a vague sense of calling (this would be programming in order to ascribe instruction to God) and the intent to manifest an impact on society (“When this is done people will be barely able to comprehend. But they won’t be able to deny”). One might see allusions to dictated actions, such as his indifference to the suggestion that “You enjoyed torturing those people”: “I doubt enjoyed any more than Detective Mills would enjoy time alone with me in a room without windows”. 

There’s no good reason for Doe to be a killer (“ he’s independently wealthy, well-educated and totally insane”), so he needs to have been fashioned into one. Somerset warns “It’s dismissive to call him a lunatic. Don’t make that mistake”, and the method suggests this, while contrasting with official documented FBI cases like Son of Sam (“My dog made me do it”) and John Hinkley (“Jodie Foster told me to do it”). John Doe derives from the “lucid intellectual” brand of movie serial killers (post-Lecter), designed to suggest not just random next-door neighbours but also those who may be in positions of respect or authority. Nowhere is safe.

On the surface too, Doe is seized by the concept of moral rectitude. He recognises that we are controlled by malign forces (those “sick ridiculous puppets”) and that our optimum path has been disrupted (“We are not what was intended”), but his response is of a characteristically contributing (rather than cancelling) kind. At one point, McGowan asks “Was Manson himself a puppet, as well as a puppeteer? 

Walker gives Doe biblical import, invoking Thomas Aquinas (the seven Deadly sins) as well as Milton, Dante and Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice). Depraved De Sade is also namechecked. Such literary credentials – along with Somerset visiting a library to the strains of Bach – boost Seven as a thinking movie, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it withstands scrutiny. There’s little in the way of consistency to Doe’s punishments. In the cases of Gluttony (the morbidly obese man) Greed (the defence attorney) and Pride (the model) the individuals are killed (or kill themselves) for their sins. But with drug-dealer pederast, Doe arguably “makes” him slothful by strapping him to a bed for a year. And with lust, it is the client (Leland Orser) who is lustful, rather than the prostitute he kills at gunpoint (it’s a stretch to say her making a living turning people on makes her guilty of lust, whatever else one might say she is guilty of). 

In that example, one might maintain Doe mirrors Paltrow’s Tracy, who has committed no sin (identified by Doe) but is a vehicle for punishing another; the lustful man must live with his deed, just as Mills must live with himself for executing Doe. Either way, it isn’t very tidy to have to make excuses for holes in the perp’s carefully planned terror/ revelation campaign. And on that subject, do we really believe John Doe when he explains himself as a victim of envy (“I tried to play husband. I tried to taste the life of a simple man… It seems that envy is my sin”)? Not at all. It’s quite clear he’s playing that part so as to provoke David. So, as these things go, he’s a bit of a disaster. 

Also notable in the mix is the justification of the system in its assault on public freedoms. “How is this legal?” asks Mills of FBI records of books withdrawn from the public library (involving such tell-tale activities as nuclear weapons – hah! – and flirtations with fascism, per Mein Kampf). But it’s okay. Rest easy. They’re after a serial killer. You know, the very same serial killers for which the FBI have made up the suspect lore, and whom the CIA put into service (give or take; this isn’t to suggest there aren’t genuinely deranged individuals, or that some cases – Manson – aren’t straight-up psyops). Along the same lines, it’s absolutely fine to persuade a witness to make up a statement – per Mills breaking down John Doe’s door – if it’s in service of getting the goods on a serial killer (we know this from all the manufactured pieces of evidence cited by McGowan in Programmed to Kill).

Seven originally had Jeremiah Chechik attached; his skill with non-comedic vehicles is readily evident from The Avengers. Val Kilmer turned Doe down while Denzel Washington regretted passing on the Mills part (hopefully, he also regretted accepting the risible The Bone Collector). Jean-Pierre Jeunet cinematographer Darius Khondji provided the picture’s distinctive visuals via bleach bypass (whereby the silver stock is removed). He would work with the director again on Panic Room. 

The title sequence, set to NiN’s Closer (the end credits are accompanied by Bowie’s Heart’s Filthy Lesson, tonally perfect) is supremely sinister, following a rather non-descript first scene; I must say I’d forgotten that introduction. Apparently, the titles were intended to depict Somerset buying a house out of the city (it’s almost like suggesting Blade Runner has any area that isn’t city; even the end of Seven is harsh, arid, desolate… anticipating Blade Runner 2049). The picture was all but ignored at the Oscars (it received a solitary Best Film Editing nomination), perhaps because, unleavened by humour and the class of an Ant Hopkins, it was just a mite too distasteful (Fincher wouldn’t really attract such attention until he cleaned up his act for Benjamin Button).

Prior to Panic Room (the need for bankability), his run had been consistently, uncompromisingly nihilistic, from Alien³ (killing the franchise, the alien/ Company wins) to Seven (as he intended, absent even a word of empty comfort from Somerset), to The Game (death and rebirth ritual as induction into secret societies), to Fight Club (MKUltra, societal collapse as victory). Notably, Fincher was attached to a project called The Sky is Falling, in which two priests go on a killing spree after learning God doesn’t exist. That pretty much says it all about the guy. Perhaps he took in the view at the cloning centres at some point and simply despaired.

Because this is evidently – as proved by the redundant The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mindhunter and his incoming movie – Fincher’s abiding preference for repose. Frankly, though, while it suggests he needs some serious deprogramming, it’s preferable to something as deadly dull as Mank. Seven came out in a period when there were some great downbeat, adult mainstream movies – Heat, 12 Monkeys, The Usual Suspects were all in the same calendar year – and it stands up in a way the director’s too-calculated later projects mostly do not. For a while, I was of the view Zodiac might be his best picture, but it’s one compromised by the very things that allow Seven, through partial disregard, to resonate: sticking to the FBI rulebook and a need to provide closure.

*Addendum 12/04/23: Brad’s ex is also an ex, it seems. Gwyneth, one of Hollywood’s legion hermaphrodites, is also no longer with us.

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