David Fincher’s Seven is a masterwork of the crime thriller genre. In his regular feature, Nick Bartlett examines a lesser-heralded scene from the classic movie.
Seven is only David Fincher’s second feature film (his first if you disregard Alien3 – as I’m sure he would want you to) but it includes all the hallmarks that would go on to be staples of his striking-yet-unassuming style. A bleak thriller following detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman) as they attempt to track down a serial killer basing his murders on the seven deadly sins, the subject matter may be sensationalist, but the way Fincher handles it is incredibly measured.
When you think of Seven, chances are you think of Brad Pitt shouting “What’s in the box?” or the gruesome reveal of the Sloth victim. The scene that has always made my skin crawl though, is the aftermath of the Lust murder. It’s perhaps the grisliest murder in the entire film, but the details of the murder are initially only implied, with Fincher only drip-feeding the audience after the fact.
Before the victim is discovered, we see the detectives as they follow a lead to Wild Bill’s Leather Shop, where they find the owner has made a bespoke item for the murderer. We do not see this ourselves but, when the detectives are shown a polaroid of it, their disgust is plain to see. Just then, the two are called to the latest murder scene. (In a neat touch, a limping figure who may or may not be the killer can be seen in the background, watching through a window).
Seven includes all the hallmarks that would go on to be staples of Fincher’s striking-yet-unassuming style.
In keeping with the hellish theme of the film, the crime scene is shot with a sinister red tint as Mills and Somerset go down the stairs into the sex club, almost literally descending into hell, with flashing lights and the throbbing, jarring score pounding relentlessly with nobody able to turn it off. This appropriately nightmarish piece of music was composed by sound designers Ren Klyce and Steve Boeddeker for the express purpose of disorienting the viewer, and makes the subsequent discovery feel like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. A cop shouts at the booth operator to get him out, while another bellows in the detective’s faces just outside the murder room. They walk through a seedy corridor before entering the room with “LUST” carved into the door.
Throughout Seven, Fincher shows incredible restraint when it comes to showing the murders themselves, but goes into forensic detail with the crime scenes. In this case though, we don’t even see the body of the victim, a murdered prostitute. Instead she is obscured by the framing of the two detectives, and your eye quickly shifts to the hysterical client screaming in the corner. Unlike the previous murders, here Fincher slowly reveals the details of the murder in the subsequent interrogation, (as Somerset and Mills respectively interview the unwilling accomplice and the booth operator) with the full horror only becoming apparent at the end of the scene.
Seven is interesting in that there are very few substantial supporting roles. Instead there is a string of veteran character actors like Richard Portnow, Mark Boone Junior and Richard Schiff each turning up in well observed, if brief, cameos. The best and most memorable of these is Leland Orser as the unwilling accomplice in the Lust murder. The actor reportedly stayed up for three nights prior to shooting and actually made himself hyperventilate so as to realistically depict someone having a full-blown breakdown, and his desperate confession of what happened to the prostitute is raw and utterly devastating.
The harrowing ‘Lust’ scene in Seven.
This is where it’s revealed how the victim was murdered, and we see the polaroid for the first time. Orser’s character was forced to wear a strap-on device with a blade attached to the end of it. It’s a horrific development, and makes everything else slot into place. Orser’s hysterical performance now seems perfectly judged and all-too realistic, and it’s a stand-out moment in the film.
Meanwhile, Mills interviews the booth operator, played by Michael Massee, who gives a performance almost as effective as Orser, albeit in a quieter, slighter way. He looks the part, a constant reptilian sneer on his face, and his response to Mills’ question about whether he enjoys what he does for a living: “That’s life isn’t it?” is the perfect embodiment of the film’s central theme; the apathy of normal people that has jaded Somerset to the point of retirement and which inspired the murderer in the first place.
The way both Mills and Somerset question their witnesses also demonstrates both of their characters at their core. Mills is full of righteous anger at the booth operator, while Somerset calmly listens to Orser’s confession. The final, beautifully framed shot of the scene, taking in both detectives in their respective interrogation rooms, suggests defeat, but also shows how much the two men are rubbing off on each other. The idealistic Mills is sat slumped, resigned to the horror of the murders, while the cynical Somerset is more upright and thoughtful.
Seven is an excellent thriller, filled with horrific moments – but this scene occupies a unique position amongst the grisly set-pieces. The horror of this murder isn’t diluted at all by not seeing the act itself, only intensified by the raw performances and the way Fincher lays out the details in the most devastating way possible, making this the most harrowing and disturbing sequence in the film.