I rewatched Seven this past weekend for the first time in 20 years. I remembered almost every scene with vivid detail, but I forgot how hard the movie hits.
I was fourteen when I first saw David Fincher’s masterpiece. I went to it with my best friend at the theater, back when it was a little harder to see an R-rated flick underage. But he looked much older than 14, already sporting a good beard, and so we were able to lie and say he was my cousin. I guess it wasn’t that hard to get into movies, but it still took some work.
In any case, I was not at all prepared for what came next. I’d never seen anything so disturbing before and I left the theater truly shaken. The Lust murder messed with my young brain a lot. But then, so did all the others. The ending blew my mind. I was never able to watch another Kevin Spacey movie without thinking about this one. Say what you will about him, but his performance as the killer was superb. Almost too good.
Some thoughts I had while watching:
- I kept thinking about Twelve Monkeys. Terry Gilliam’s film came out around the same time and also starred Brad Pitt and the similarities in Pitt’s performance are uncanny. But also the similarities in mood, set design, cinematography, etc. They feel like films that could exist in the same “universe.” Dilapidated buildings. Suffering. Dark and grey. One is a serial killer mystery and one is a time-traveling science fiction story but they evoke a lot of the same mood. Fascinating.
- As a critic now, I found myself appreciating so many little things about Seven that I didn’t really notice when I was young. The cinematography is stunning. The entire sequence in the police car when they’re driving John out to find the two bodies is so striking. The way they film it through the grates between the front and back seats. The whole thing is so film noire. The scene where the killer has the gun to Detective Mills’ head in the rain. Astonishingly brilliant. But also the slow pace, the character building, the dialogue. It feels like a movie made a long, long time ago. And it is! They don’t make movies like this anymore.
- Finally, and most relevant to this post, I kept thinking to myself “This is a Batman movie!” One thing I didn’t notice when I first watched this was how they never mention the name of the city. They say “this place” a lot. They talk about the city. They refer to it constantly and it becomes its own character in more ways than one. But they do not name it. As I watched I started to think, “Oh, this is Gotham!”
And when you think about it, Seven really is a Batman movie. It’s a Batman movie without the Caped Crusader, without any of the silly, big stakes that usually define superhero movies. But it has an almost supernatural villain, it has the detectives trying to solve this terrible case, and they’re tested in the end. There isn’t much action or fighting. They’re not even supposed to kill, but that ultimately becomes the test that the killer sets up for the hero.
In Seven, of course, there are two detectives. Mills is the emotional one, driven by passion, always reacting. Somerset (played by Morgan Freeman in one of his very best roles) is the intellectual. He’s the smart one, the thoughtful one. Somerset goes to the library and reads for hours. Mills gets the Cliff Notes. In a lot of ways, they represent a duality, a Yin and Yang. They’re opposites at a deep, fundamental level—similar (but also quite different) from the buddy cops in True Detective’s first season.
Once I thought about how this was Gotham, I kept thinking about how Batman was out there, too. These were cops in his city, solving crimes that weren’t on his radar. Commissioner Gordon just didn’t have to light up the Bat signal because they were able to solve the case on their own, but Bruce Wayne was out there, in his empty mansion, in the rain, solving his own case.
Watching this movie through this lens, I’m reminded of something else that’s been bothering me about so many of our superhero stories. They constantly tell stories about Very Big And Terrible Things happening. Someone is trying to destroy the city, or the country, or the entire world, or the entire stupid multiverse. The stakes are so high that we no longer have an emotional attachment to them. In Seven, the villain only kills a few people, but the stakes feel intimate and terrifying.
In Twelve Monkeys (SPOILERS) the bad guy actually does destroy the world, but that’s not really important to the plot. What’s important is Cole’s dream. Cole (Bruce Willis) witnesses his own death as a child. That’s the loop that the time travel tale spins. What’s important is that it all fits together. What’s important is that we care about these characters more than we care about the world ending. And in Seven, we see an intimate tragedy play out and it’s every bit as tense and devastating as anything any MCU or DC movie has offered up over the years. More so, I’d argue, precisely because it’s character-driven first and foremost.
My final thought is straight out of the headline: I’d love to see David Fincher make a Batman movie. I think it’s probably the Christopher Nolan trilogy that Seven reminds me of the most, but even Nolan’s excellent take on Batman was steeped in massive stakes. The destruction of the city at the hands of Ra’s al Ghul; the Joker’s insane, intricate plot; the almost absurd lengths the villains took in The Dark Knight Rises.
It might be more compelling to create a Batman villain and a Batman story that was not quite so outrageous, that was more like Seven, that was small and traumatizing with stakes that truly frightened and ensnared us.
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