In a decade crowded with serial killer movies, many of them based on James Patterson novels and featuring either Ashley Judd or Morgan Freeman (and sometimes both), 1995's Se7en stands as a singular achievement, a film that holds up today, 20 years after its release, because of its originality and artistic vision (it also has one of the most influential title sequences in recent memory). In this video, from Cinefix, the last half-hour of 1995's Se7en is broken down in a way that illuminates the film's shadowed corners (if you haven't seen the film, you might want to look away):
Roughly, Se7en tells the light-hearted story of a young Detective from the sticks, Mills (Pitt), who is teamed up with jaded, weeks from retirement veteran, Detective Somerset (Freeman). And they totally get along super well, and it's kind of a buddy comedy except it's totally not, and yet, the odd couple tropes, probably because they are foregrounded and played with (this was, remember, in the immediate aftermath of Pulp Fiction, when any script that turned whatever genre it was ostensibly a part of, "on its head", was probably likely to get optioned. Since, as the saying goes (and I paraphrase), history doesn't repeat itself so much as it rhymes. This period was a little like the late 60s and 70s, at least up until about 1977, but the long-haired inmates were now legit running the asylum and were watching the bottom line like their waist lines, and also drinking Zima while rollerblading to and fro and hither and yon. This is how I think of it, anyway.
According to Cinefix, Se7en was almost a very different film, with studio choices for casting including Denzel Washington and Sly Stallone, and Guillermo Del Toro at the helm. Oh, and Val Kilmer was going to be John Doe. When that amazing hypothetical team fell apart, Brad Pitt signed on, David Fincher got interested, and the studio suddenly became squeamish about the end of the film. Doe has been murdering people in complicated and symbolic ways that illustrate the so-called Seven Deadly Sins, which originated in early Christianity, and could get you in a lot of trouble with various authorities. The sins, for those of you who didn't go to Catholic schools most of your life, are: Gluttony, Pride, Greed, Lust, Sloth, Envy, and Wrath. The same concept can also be found in many world religions, including Buddhism's Five Poisons, and has appeared in art throughout the centuries, perhaps most famously in Dante's poem the Divine Comedy.
Unknown screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker's conceit was the most original idea in the oversaturated 'fiendishly ingenious serial killer genre', a post-modern nod to Pre-Millenium tension in a bloody body of work that had started, arguably, with Silence of the Lambs and its cannibal genius Dr. Hannibal Lecter (yes, I am aware of Michael Mann's Manhunter, another Lecter film from 1986 that, while good, did not have nearly the impact of Jonathan Demme's film). The studio liked the movie, and liked Brad Pitt, but they weren't wild about the ending, finding it kind of a downer and suggesting several alternatives, including, believe it or not, a box containing the head of Pitt's dog, which is super messed up, but not really the same thing.
Pitt, though, threatened to leave if the script was messed with, and so he and Freeman and Fincher (who was not "bankable" at the time, owing to the failure of Alien 3) got to work on their happy little film. The director had famously vowed that he would rather die in a markedly unpleasant way rather than go through the experience of directing a franchise film where he felt like a director in name only, and so pulled nary a punch on the film. Fincher had made his name with visually striking commercials, including this famous PSA from 1984 that will make you never want to smoke another cigarette ever:
Fincher, who came on board without ever seeing the studio's watered-down endings, was instantly taken with Walker's script, and along with DP Darius Khondji, began to sketch out an aesthetic to match the world it suggested. They decided to shoot on Super 35mm, and the larger surface area along with fast lenses set between 2 and 2.8 allowed for shallow depth of field with images that fall off into blurs right behind the characters. Khondji and Fincher used these fairly wide open apertures to their advantage, crafting the visual analog to the bleak story.
Lastly, the film was developed with the "bleach bypass" technique, or Color Contrast Enhancement, which makes "dark areas darker and light areas lighter (similar to blending mode overlay). In other words, the blacks are more black. Further, this technique adds more grain to the film print."
The only time in the film when it doesn't rain is when Kevin Spacey's killer turns himself in and leads the Detectives on a trip to a brightly lit hell. This contradiction in visual convention is part of what makes Se7en such a fascinating film, and the video does a far better job than I could of explaining the rest of the story. And in case you were wondering, there are actually 7 Cardinal Virtues to contrast the sins John Doe is killing everyone over. These qualities of Faith, Hope, Charity, Fortitude, Justice, Temperance and, of course, Prudence, have yet to be the subject of a movie, but here's the trailer for the sinning version Se7en, which is not just another serial killer movie with Morgan Freeman from the 90s:
Besides being the best serial killer movie from the 90s with Morgan Freeman, it's a work of pop art, a movie that manages to transcend genre and make a statement about the sort of religious anxiety that has accompanied every millennial turn.