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Boy, are we a lucky audience when David Fincher decided to step behind the camera as director for the first time. Okay, maybe not the first time (Alien 3), but we’re going to pretend that never happened and acknowledge Seven as his first visit to the land where genius directors reside. On September 22nd of 1995, we were gifted this cinematic treasure in all its neo-noir, psychological thriller glory. Hopefully with 21 years having past, everyone has had the chance to see it, because we’re definitely focusing on that head-spinning ending eventually.
For those needing a refresher, Seven focuses on an unnamed-yet-well-characterized city and the heinous crimes that occur within it. Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) aims to stop said crimes, but is a week from retirement. Enter Brad Pitt‘s impatient Detective David Mills, who recently moved to this unforgiving city with his wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) and is being groomed to replace Somerset. However, these two well-intentioned detectives didn’t expect to encounter a serial killer the likes of John Doe (Kevin Spacey), who uses the seven deadly sins individually as a theme for each of his murders.
The imagery of each of Doe’s murders haunts you, even decades after your first viewing of this film. Seeing an emaciated man tied to a bed, still surprisingly alive and gasping for air (sloth). The visual of an obese man literally eating his way to death (gluttony). This movie doesn’t flinch at its own established brutality, and neither do the characters. This is unfortunately a normal occurrence in the unnamed city Seven occupies, as we see Somerset react rather passively to the presence of corpses. However, the philosophy Doe uses to justify the murders is what puzzles and sometimes frightens our protagonists the most.
Somerset and Mills are further puzzled by Doe’s surrender, which is such an intense, brilliantly filmed, written, and acted scene. Seeing Spacey’s hands and shirt drenched in blood and his calm demeanor is all the more unsettling (a recurring feeling that washes over you when watching this movie). Conversely, you have Pitt as Mills acting as any human being would: with raw emotion and shouting obscenities while pointing his gun at Doe. Mills’ path to fulfill the final sin (wrath) is practically set in stone here. He wants the world to be cleansed of Doe, but has no personal reason to defend that choice until later.
As we arrive at the famous head-in-the-box ending, an interesting tidbit is how rigorously Pitt and Fincher fought to keep it. This film’s producer felt the scene was understandably brutal and wanted it changed (although how it’s more or less brutal than anything we’ve seen thus far in the movie is a mystery). Pitt just came off of performing in Legends of the Fall, which had its original ending changed due to a negative test audience reaction. To put it mildly, Pitt was unhappy with the Fall‘s ending change, and threatened to leave Seven if this ending was altered too.
So the ending stayed, but it was still vastly different in the pre-production storyboards. The head in the box remained, but Somerset recognized Mills’ eagerness to kill Doe and opted to shoot Doe himself to save Mills a lifetime of regret and possible jail time. When a shocked Mills asks Somerset “what’d you do,” Somerset simply replies, “I’m retiring.” I can’t say I would’ve had an issue with that ending, but the ending we received was far more powerful since it fulfilled Doe’s intended deadly sins murder cycle.
Can we also admire how much tension and unease Howard Shore‘s pulsing musical score adds to this iconic ending? With every note, we’re on the edge of our seat, without having the slightest idea what the heck is going to happen. Also, we see Fincher show his innovation as director in his choice to briefly flash Tracy’s face as a reminder to what Mills lost before Mills executes Doe. And Pitt couldn’t have conveyed inner conflict and grief more perfectly if asked. He’s showing us at least 10 emotions in a brief space of 2 minutes, and it makes you feel his heartbreak and anger in every frame.
Now that I’ve extensively waxed poetic about Seven, let’s crack open a wine bottle and have a toast to the movie’s 21st birthday! Why wine? It’s what Somerset, Mills, and Tracy drank as they broke bread: the one peaceful scene in this chaotic and unflinchingly brutal classic.