Yet 1995 was not simply a year of corporate indulgence; it was also a period where the rampant nihilist streak inherent to much of the cinema of the late ’90s and the 2000s and still running wild today came to fruition in the eyes of one music video director…
You don’t get too far these days without a David Fincher film tying up the woodworks of fall with a Gothic gloom a mile wide that it hides nothing but (briefly) its own self-boredom. Fincher’s aesthetic is so wound-up and ready for battle that it’s hard to remember a time when his way was a new arbiter for the sort of caustic, nihilist, curdled noir not seen since the Atomic Age. Once upon a time, he was one of many young upstarts responsible form the gloomy, grim ’90s – back when gloomy and grim were actually artistic statements rather than cynical cash-grabs. Moving from the music video world to the gaping hole that was the solemn sigh of Alien 3 without much distinction, Seven was a whole other beast, capturing the baroque loss of his previous film and using it rather than abusing it. And what use! Seven is among the finest American films of its decade, bruised and hurting but always nervous and fighting back, thriving on a tension between lively pugnaciousness and mournful wistfulness that never ceases to sting.
Kudos to Fincher for understanding the great lost truth of film noir: it is not reality, but hell and limbo that are its wheelhouse. The surface level is merely a well worn “weary old black cop, hot head young white cop” trope straight out of Lethal Weapon, but with a near Gothic sense of horror traded in for Weapon’s single-minded focus on brutal action as an avenue for expressing internal trauma. Morgan Freeman playing experienced loner detective William Somerset and Brad Pitt learning the ropes as David Mills, the two set out to discover the identity of and apprehend a killer whose modus operandi takes the form of inflicting the seven deadly sins back on his victims.
Fincher’s youthful expertise is to reinterpret the detective thriller by bringing it back to its 1940s roots in white-hot hellish odyssey. The killer’s mechanisms are an obvious clue – Fincher’s goal is to make this vision of LA a living hell, empty and composed of dark, damp, musty rooms disconnected except by their shared pathways to further torment and torture. Somerset and Mills are Virgil and Dante in this wide open flesh wound to hell, with Fincher testing and devouring goodness and tempting audience and character alike with the understanding that a film noir is not something to be taken lightly, or perhaps to enjoy at all.
Of course, Fincher’s natural way with sleek, beaten-down visuals makes it a mighty entertainment anyway, using its two characters to epitomize types on their way through humanity’s worst and hell’s finest offerings and dealing furiously and sharply with thriller mechanics with beauty and near-perfection. The fact that it is in fact entertaining and that it knows it should not be is not as much of a contradiction as it may seem; the entirety of the noir aesthetic can be summed up as “humanity is lost, best enjoy ourselves while we wait to stave off our loss”. But he is always careful to keep the tone dark and worrisome, to tempt us with the fact that we are enjoying ourselves amidst the perfectly staged human woe and the undeniable kinetic thrills of the piece. It’s grotesquely magnetic in the finest tradition of horror literature, a noir thriller that understands its base similarities to the more fantastical regions of the human psyche. It understands, in its quavering camera and its mouths-of-hell industrial Gothic cinematography by Darius Khondji, that noir is but a more respectable form of horror, and that the urges of horror at its most primitive, the pulsing fears of humanity, are always waiting to break out.
It certainly helps too that Fincher has plenty of help, being given Andrew Kevin Walker’s greatest screenplay, as tight and malevolent as it is edgy and classically-formed. It’s something of a brilliant work of writing, every seeming dead end around the edges recomposed and repurposed like a well-oiled machine to fit into the film’s angular deconstruction of human possibility. The presence of Pitt and especially Freeman, helps a lot, exuding a naturally slow-broiled chemistry as a team yet identifiable as individuals that still clash and barb with purpose. Freeman in particular is ridiculously good, subtly redefining his more common “weary, gentle Old Negro” persona so often stereotyped and abused in films that cast him. Here he incorporates a darker side that presents his gentleness as the last solemn rays of hope he feeds himself as lies to hide the fact that he understands only the evils and horrors of the corrosive, corrupted society around him.
With all this, Seven is the rare film that works equally well as sleek, slick, sick entertainment and anti-human psychological test, thriving on, rather than hiding, the cognitive dissonance between the fact that we enjoy it and that we should not. Here we find the large problem with too many of Fincher’s later period films all the way up to Gone Girl: they are too content to use their false lurid qualities to find dramatic respect that they lose track of the fact that noir is essentially human tragedy on parade, and that one can, if they are honest with humanity’s worst impulses, enjoy human tragedy on parade. Fincher’s later films want to have it both ways, being both low and high brow, demented and respectable, and the two smother each other. Seven is demented, and all it wants to be is lurid, and in its luridness, in its full, heaving commitment to its festering internal dread, it finds respect.