The Callousness of Se7en

There has always been an opinionated criticism of David Fincher’s work, as a man that often deals a cold hand when concerning emotionality. Film like The Social Network, Gone Girl, and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo are perfect examples of the narrative remaining primary over characters. This is in no way a harsh critique, as these examples are some of my favourite works in cinema over the past twenty years, and of course that does not negate any character work that is present. However, if applying a critical mind to Fincher’s separation between himself and his characters, there isn’t a film that that disconnect feels more apparent and more appropriate, than in his second directorial outing, Se7en.

Se7en, while regarded as a classic and a film forever bound to the cult status of the dreaded box, is not the game-changing genre piece that many believe it to be. Twenty-five years on, Se7en is still an excellent meditation on the murder-mystery genre, along with some cracking references to noir cinema, but it is also stuffed full of the various tropes, clichés and expected plot conveniences that most modern mysteries lay home to. Yet before you get your pitchforks at the ready, as this blasphemous statement is a outright contradiction of my five star rating of this film, Se7en may be something we have seen before, but through aesthetic, style, tone, and delivery, it remains to be one of the best examples of that familiarity.

It is that genre mastery that would align Fincher’s emotional dissonance, in a way that had symbolic meaning to its story. Somerset, a tired detective close to retirement takes on one final case. This case, however, turns out to be a doozy as this mysterious serial killer takes a biblical form of torture, taming each of his victims in the fashion of the seven deadly sins. Working the various vitriolic atrocities of this nondescript city, Somerset has seen it all through his years holding a badge, and he is anxiously close to the being free of the tight threatening grip that the city has over him.  But despite his nice manner and his desire to wash himself of the city’s dirt, he is a man coated in a thick layer of its grime.

As our protagonists, Mills and Somerset, are perpetually drawn into this murderous game of cat and mouse, there is an immediate callous barrier between badge and corpse. This may be too raw and relevant an issue to discuss in these tumultuous times, however, this callousness is founded in exposure, rather than power-hungry brutality. The nameless city is notoriously brutal, as pointed out from Somserset’s confusion that Mills would want to move his family there. Or even better represented by Somerset’s claustrophobic living condition, in where he require a metronome to drown out the upset just outside his windows.

It isn’t necessarily that Mills and Somerset are bad men, simply that they are surrounded by bad deeds. And with repeated exposure to such horrendous crimes, less and less is able to penetrate their solidified and curdled exteriors. With each new crime scene, Mills is disgusted at most by the smell of his victims, rather than the circumstances of their violent demise. Additionally Somerset barely bats an eyelid.  

This examination on numbed exposure is brought to the fore by Mill’s wife, Tracy, who from experience of the city alone, is repressed by its cruel and crushing nature. Tracy is the beacon of light in this dim, soaked city, and it chews her up and spits her out before the boxes of their newly rented apartment are even unpacked.

Eventually the dark influences of the city become too much for Mill’s, who’s unstable temperament is set loose upon the death of his wife. As Mill’s is carted off in the wrong end of a squad car, he comes yet another example of a man soured by sin.

With a head in a box, the killer dead, and Mills arrested, retirement, or escape from the city, seems futile for Somerset. The cruelty, violence, depression and oppression of his home and career, isn’t something that can be easily escaped. It is his every day, his normality, and no amount of fresh-aired countryside or quiet safe neighbourhood can wash away the grime that has permeated its way deep into his soul.

Published by Aaron Bayne

I’m a film and video games journalist based in Scotland. I write stuff about them on my website, talk about them on my podcasts and film videos about them for BBC The Social.

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