The legacy of moral panic: Revisiting David Fincher’s neo-noir film ‘Se7en’
“The condition of man… is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.”—Thomas Hobbes
David Fincher’s 1995 neo-noir may not have won many awards when it was first released but it has gained a lot of admirers in subsequent years. More notably, it has found a place for itself on Roger Ebert’s famous list of ‘Great Movies’, a list which includes the likes of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. In his review of Se7en, Ebert wrote, “None of his films is darker than this one.” Considering Fincher’s unique oeuvre, this is the highest of praise. The acclaimed filmmaker would go on to direct great films like Fight Club and Zodiac but Se7en is remarkable for what it is: an unforgiving picture of the rotting soul of humanity.
Within a minute of the film’s beginning, we are presented with a ghastly scene involving a morbidly obese man whose face is stuffed in a bowl of spaghetti, hands and legs bound, sitting in his own piss and shit. Fincher does not waste time with the formalities of cinematic voyeurism and smacks us in the face with an unforgettable depiction of man’s excesses. It is easy to establish that the intrinsic nature of the universe before us is thoroughly violent. The two protagonists of the story are antithetical in many ways but as time passes, they begin to form a compelling and coherent team. Detective William Somerset (played by Morgan Freeman) is a law enforcement official on the verge of retirement whereas David Mills (Brad Pitt) is a young detective looking for a new challenge. Their nuanced on-screen chemistry is one of the many reasons why Se7en works so wonderfully. Somerset admonishes Mills as well as the audience when he says, “I want you to look and I want you to listen, okay?”.
Fincher systematically dismantles the belief that the essence of evil can only be embodied by people, insisting that modernity has churned out a fog of omnipresent terror. It can be argued that the primary antagonist of Se7en isn’t John Doe (a brilliant performance from Kevin Spacey) but the city itself. Riddled with urban decay and constantly drenched in rain, it is a bleak microcosm that is only capable of hatred. Naming a serial killer John Doe is proof enough that the specific identity of the killer does not matter, something that is reiterated by Doe, “It doesn’t matter who I am. Who I am means absolutely nothing.” What matters is the idea of a killer who has had enough of this “sinful” world. When he realises that the killer could be anyone, an unextinguishable moral panic seizes us. The film also manages to do away with the stereotype of an insane criminal, reminding us that it is comfortable to label something we cannot understand. Doe is an extremely educated and intelligent man who quotes Milton’s Paradise Lost and uses his crime scenes to make Shakespeare references. He is all the more menacing for his erudition.
The most striking images in the film are those of the crimes. None of the violence happens on-screen, except for the final killing. We learn that Doe is almost like a murderous priest who is determined to carry out his own twisted sense of Biblical justice. It is understood that killing the obese man was a political statement against gluttony. We slowly make our way through the rest of the seven deadly sins, forced to see a lawyer punished for his greed and a sex worker killed with a strap-on blade among other unspeakable acts of insidious violence. All of this is a manifestation of Doe’s dangerous disillusionment:
What sick, ridiculous puppies we are, and what a gross stage we dance on. What fun we have dancing and fucking. Not a care in the world. Not knowing that we are nothing. We are not what was intended.
As Somerset and Mills try to track him, we also gain important insights about the world they are living in. The elder detective reveals that the FBI monitors people’s reading habits through library cards, noting down the names of individuals who are reading “flagged books”. The entire point of a Hobbesian surveillance state is to prevent crime but that’s not the case at all, as John Doe so effortlessly proves. Evil always finds a way.
Se7en’s final act is almost unparalleled in its exploitation of cinematic tension to the fullest, successfully constructing an atmospheric paranoia. It’s almost absurd to think that the notorious criminal who has been pursued relentlessly for most of the film just gives himself up but that’s exactly what happens. At that point, murders have been associated to only five of the sins (leaving out envy and wrath) but the ending takes care of all of that. After driving out to the middle of nowhere, Doe unveils his final masterpiece. He urges Mills to kill him because he is guilty of envying the detective’s healthy life, incurring his wrath by gifting him his wife’s severed head in a box. He becomes a martyr for his strange cause and we are left with an overwhelming sense of shock.
Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker came up with the idea for the film while he was working at a New York City records store. Depressed about not being where he wanted to be in life, he started writing the dark script. He sent it to David Koepp who asked him to get professional help after he had finished reading Walker’s work. Se7en is a truly noteworthy product whose philosophy is cynical but strong. It ends with Somerset’s revision of a famous Hemingway quote:
“The world is a fine place and worth fighting for. I agree with the second part.”