John Doe And The Seven Sins | Se7en At 25
Before David Fincher‘s cinematic debut in 1992, he had become a notoriously prolific figure among the music video business, having directed over 50 music videos since 1984, working with the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Sting, Michael Jackson and even Rick Springfield. An impressive catalogue of creativity in the music business led Fincher to cinema in 1992 with 20th Century Fox’s, Alien 3.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite as planned and Alien 3 was a tough pill for Fincher to swallow. Studio meddling and production issues caused him to disown his first big budget venture and with it came scathing criticism from critics and particularly, Alien franchise fans. But less than three years later, Fincher returned to the director’s chair and unleashed Se7en.
Fincher’s Se7en was the product of Brainscan (1994) and Hideaway (1995) writer, Andrew Kevin Walker. Walker wasn’t exactly an established name in cinema before 1995: his written efforts remained firmly rooted in B-movie horror filmmaking. But something clicked when New Line Cinema acquired Walker’s screenplay for Se7en and David Fincher’s directorial services. Instead of providing yet another B-movie horror experience for cinema-goers, Fincher aimed to take Walker’s dark slasher-esque script and create an experience fans of the darker side of cinema would never forget.
Centering around a soon-to-retire detective, William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), and his newly appointed hotshot partner, David Mills (Brad Pitt), Se7en tells the tale of an enigmatic serial killer enforcing his modus operandi – murder and torure by the way of the seven deadly sins – as William and David attempt to stop this serial killer before it’s simply too late. A sadistic game of cat and mouse ensues and it isn’t long before both William and David realize this serial killer has something truly sinister planned and hidden beneath the discernible surface.
During the early 90’s, more adult oriented cinema had dipped its toes in the psychological thriller genre here and there. 1991’s The Silence Of The Lambs was a critical and commercial triumph but, strangely, its darker, more macabre attention to the thriller template did nothing to shift the tone of thrillers from the 90’s into darker waters. Thrillers from the early 90’s, particularly psychological thrillers, were largely safe experiences for the most part rarely dabbling in darker subject matter. Fincher’s Se7en changed psychological thrillers forever upon it’s release.
With Se7en, Fincher focused on the simple understanding of ‘less is more’, a cinematic understanding that can be traced all the way back to and before the masterful Alfred Hitchcock. Walker’s screenplay was sadistic and edgy for its time. It could have turned into some sort of unnecessary slasher movie worship in the wrong hands.
However, Fincher aimed to present his audience with gruesome subject matter that most would find extremely uncomfortable but presented it in a masterful way that echoed something like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Massacre was a vicious movie to many but, upon rewatching, it becomes clear that most of what audiences were repulsed and disgusted by is entirely different than what their minds previously interpreted. A filmmaking technique Fincher would impressively utilise with Se7en.
Fincher’s focus on ‘less is more’ meant that many considered Se7en to be far more disgusting and bleak than anything the camera actually shows us. Each crime scene is the aftermath: although it may still offer some disturbing imagery for fearful onlookers, Se7en was deeply rooted in infiltrating the human psyche and having idividuals conjure up their own ideas and grim interpretations of what actually happened. Coupled with Kevin Spacey’s John Doe, whose acting credit was purposely removed from posters and cast advertisement to ensure the highest level of secrecy, Se7en was focused on what you couldn’t see as opposed to what you believe you could. It was this attention to presentation from Fincher that changed the thriller genre for years to come.
After Se7en‘s release, resulting in incredible success and massive box office returns, it became apparent very quickly that production studios were no longer afraid of exploring the dark side of the thriller genre. Se7en‘s success saw a horde of similarly themed thrillers begin to release such as Kiss The Girls (1997), The Bone Collector (1999), Resurrection (1999) and even the incredibly similar but even weirder The Cell in 2000. Fincher and Walker’s vision had changed thriller cinema forever but even with the flood of similarly styled movies releasing after, Se7en just couldn’t be matched. Why, I hear you ask?
Both New Line Cinema and Fincher knew they had struck gold with Walker’s screenplay. In much the same way horror/thriller fans became beloved fanatics of Hannibal Lector with The Silence Of The Lambs, Walker’s script gave fans John Doe. Taking the religious implications of the seven deadly sins and applying them to an enigmatic serial killer, Walker created one of the most fascinating portrayals of human psychology in the darker crevices of genre filmmaking. Spacey’s John Doe is a man utterly consumed by the depravity and mercilessness of humanity and he believes some people should simply pay the price for their unchecked sinning. This would seem something of a noble motive had it not been torn apart by Doe’s fragmented and disturbed mind.
Doe is a character that infected the minds of cinema audiences and questioned their understanding of morality. There is no denying John Doe was insane and better off apprehended and locked behind bars for the rest of his life but Se7en wasn’t just another run-of-the-mill adult oriented thriller. Instead it was a dark and depraved movie that asked questions of its viewers.
Pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth, are all sins that we have experienced within our lives and Walker tapped into that psychological understanding and served us up a depressing portrait of what our sins may lead us towards. It was extremely ambitious and it worked, with audiences obsessing over Fincher’s eschewed vision of society. It also cemented Doe as one of the greatest villains in movie history. But even with all of Fincher’s triumphs, his greatest achievement lies in a scene that, under different proceedings, may never have happened.
The infamous box scene at the end of Se7en was a tough sell for both Walker and Fincher. New Line Cinema feared the ending might be too much for audiences and instead opted to convince both Fincher and Walker into presenting Se7en’s vision in a more upbeat manner. Suggestions from New Line Cinema for a new ending were not well received by Fincher or Walker.
Suggestions like Somerset murdering Doe because he wanted out of the police force and Mills becoming involved in a race against Doe to stop his scheme just didn’t work for Fincher and Walker. Fincher battled with New Line demanding that the infamous box scene at the end stay in the final product. Thankfully it made the final cut, becoming one of the greatest twist endings in cinema history. A twist so shocking and unpredictable that it remains one of the most talked about scenes in movie history. And rightfully so.
Had this infamous scene been changed and meddled with, it would be hard to envision Se7en as the game-changer it became. That iconic scene took the norms of thriller movies at that time and turned them completely upside down, providing a refreshing approach the thriller genre needed. The film culminates with John Doe’s true intentions becoming clear and Mills being confronted with the desperation of the final sin, Wrath. Se7en‘s ending is so iconic any other suggested ending would have been misplaced and unworthy of such genre-defining greatness.
After Alien 3‘s less-than-impressive critical reception, no one expected David Fincher to direct another movie again. But with Andrew Kevin Walker’s script, something clicked and came together. Se7en is a stylish tale of depravity that proved darker content in thriller movies was more than welcome in the mid to late 90’s.
David Fincher’s Se7en has influenced endless numbers of thriller/horror movies, directors and fans throughout the years (particularly horror favourites James Wan and Leigh Whannell). 25 years on from its initial release with an intriguing focus on the seven deadly sins, an iconic performance from Kevin Spacey and a twist ending that shocked and disturbed film history, Se7en is one of the most important thrillers of all time and an absolute masterclass in psychological tension.