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I can still recall the first time that I saw David Fincher’s break-through, Seven (1995), as clearly as if it were a few days past. I was 18, at the time, and went to see the film on opening night with a high school buddy. The theater was filled with the usual mix of boisterous young people, couples on dates and large groups of friends, everyone ready for the weekend and focused on having a good time. By the time the end credits rolled, however, the entire theater was dead quiet: no one talked on the way out, no one hooted and hollered, nothing approaching a smile crossed anyone’s faces. I’ll never forget watching the formerly happy couples walk out in rather stunned silence, unable (or unwilling) to get any closer to each other than arm’s length. For our part, my friend and I said nothing to each other on the way home, each of us lost in our own thoughts, neither of us willing (or able) to deal with any other humans, at that particular moment.

20 years later, Fincher’s sophomore film may have lost the shock factor that allowed it to so handily eviscerate unsuspecting audiences: after all, in a post-Saw (2004) world, the very concept of on-screen human suffering has set such a high bar that it’s almost impossible to really shock people anymore…blame it on the internet, our own jaded sensibilities or the fact that the 24-7 news cycle has brought countless real-world atrocities right into our own living rooms but that’s just the way it is. That being said, Seven still stands as a towering testament to the inherent evil of the human animal and is still, to this day, my very favorite Fincher film. 20 years later, I offer Seven the best compliment you might give in this modern age: the film has aged exceedingly well.

The core story is nothing if not familiar: a jaded, cynical police detective, a mere week away from retirement (Morgan Freeman), gets an eager-to-impress, hotheaded, new partner (Brad Pitt) and a grotesque murder case. This particular murder was methodically planned, sickeningly creative and impossibly brutal: fearing the first sign of a serial killer, the veteran detective wants off the case…this isn’t the way that he wants to leave the force. His partner, on the other hand, sees the high profile murder as the first step on his rising career. When additional murders emerge, the older detective is proved right: it is the work of a serial killer, a seemingly genius maniac who kills based on the Seven Deadly Sins. As the pair continue to investigate the case, they uncover an increasingly complex plot that involves damnation, redemption and pure, unadulterated evil. In the process, the detectives plunge down a rabbit hole that, for at least one of them, will lead straight to a living hell.

As previously mentioned, much of the initial power of Fincher’s film comes from the shocking ways in which the story unfolds: it’s not necessarily a mystery, per se, since we’re never given quite enough to piece it all together. Rather, Fincher gradually unfolds the film, layer by layer, inching us towards the devastating conclusion one ugly atrocity at a time. The film is unrelentingly gruesome, although all of the focus is on the aftermaths: we never actually see any of the victims die, ala Saw, but we do spend plenty of time with the disturbing crime-scenes. Disturbing, in this case, is a bit of an understatement: each of the murders revolves around a particularly nasty detail that makes for some appropriately bracing visuals but, more importantly, worms its way straight into the viewer’s brain.

Unlike most slasher/serial killer/horror films, the various murders in Seven aren’t there to be “admired” by gorehounds (think of any of the latter Friday the 13th sequels or pretty much any Nightmare on Elm Street film for examples of cinematic slaughter tends to devalue the victims in favor of the “star” villain). The killings are painful, both physically and emotionally: Seven is the kind of film that you think about for days afterward, your mind constantly turning back to the various torments inflicted by the killer, worrying them over and over, like a dog with a bone. While “Gluttony,” “Greed” and “Pride” are all terrible, “Lust” and “Sloth” were the two that always got to me: there’s something so undeniably awful, yet undeniably clever, about those torments, something that I’ve never really seen replicated on-screen since (including any of the Saw films or their endless imitators).

Fincher and cinematographer Darius Hhondji (responsible for such eye-popping treasures as Jeunet’s Delicatessen (1991) and City of Lost Children (1995), as well as several of Fincher’s other films) shoot the film in the darkest, dreariest way possible, as if the evil at the core of the narrative has spread out to infect the entire world around them. Perpetually rainy, shadowy and claustrophobic, Seven pulls you into its thick atmosphere of dread and holds you there for the entire run-time: nothing sunny infiltrates this world, no joy, no hope…there’s only pain, sorrow and the promise of future pain for the denizens of Seven’s world to look forward to. It’s an atmosphere that’s as fully realized as more fantasy-oriented films like The Crow (1994) or Dark City (1998) but the grounding in “reality” makes it all seem that much more hopeless.

Across the board, the performances in Seven are impeccable, showcasing not only Fincher’s reputation as an “actor’s director,” but helping to keep us immersed in the narrative. In many ways, Brad Pitt’s performance as Det. Mills is a companion piece to his performance in Twelve Monkeys (1995), catching the matinee-idol in the transition between his twitchier, fidgetier past (there are lots of big arm movements, here, just like in Twelve Monkeys, and he often comes across as petulant, rather than driven) and his more polished future. For his part, Freeman is reliably world-weary and as sturdy as a rock: he doesn’t break any new ground, here (his performance as Det. Somerset looks an awful lot like many of his other performances, truth be told), but he’s the perfect compliment to Pitt’s brash, young enthusiasm and brings a welcome sense of “grounding” to the proceedings.

We also get Gwyneth Paltrow, in a nicely understated performance as Mills’ pregnant wife, right before her “star” would begin its meteoric rise into the stratosphere. She has genuine chemistry with both Pitt and Freeman, here: one of the films best scenes (and ideas) is the notion of the young wife seeking out the grizzled detective for life and relationship advice. There’s a subtle sense of father-daughter dynamics between the two that helps expand both their characters, as well as providing the shocking finale with an ever bigger gut-punch. As for Kevin Spacey: after first arriving on my radar via his demented performance as Mel Proffit in the old Wiseguy TV series, Spacey would go on to really impress me in Swimming With Sharks (1994) and The Usual Suspects (1995). While his role in Seven is, in some ways, little more than a cameo, he’s absolutely crucial to the film (for many obvious reasons): Spacey’s cold, reptilian, mannered performance is the embodiment of psychological evil in the same way that the gruesome killings are the embodiment of physical evil…you can’t have one without the other.

In many ways, it’s hard to gauge just how influential Fincher’s film has been in the 20 years since its release. If you think about it, so many modern genre film elements that we routinely take for granted spring from this film, like Athena from Zeus’ skull: the shadowy, dark cinematography and mise en scene; the industrial soundtrack (which features future Fincher collaborator Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails); the focus on the aftermath of the killings; the complex pathology of the killer, complete with twisted “morality”; the shocking twist that puts a pitch-black bow on everything…Fincher wasn’t the first filmmaker to use these techniques, granted, but he was one of the first pop filmmakers to put them all into the same cauldron, freely mixing the “underground” with the multiplex. Without Seven, it’s doubtful there would have been a Saw (or an 8mm (1999), for that matter, but we won’t hold that against Fincher)…the film’s DNA runs so deep, by this point, that it’s almost subliminal.

In the 20 years since Seven careened into theaters, Fincher has become one of the most well-known, iconic filmmakers of the modern era: Fight Club (1999) and Zodiac (2007) are both neo-classics and if The Game (1997), Panic Room (2002), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and The Social Network (2010) are all far from perfect, they’re also the furthest thing from dull, middle-of-the-road films as possible (even the schmaltzy Benjamin Button has some pretty dark undercurrents to it). Fincher may continue to define and improve his craft but, for me, Seven will always be his finest, most essential film: even if the film fails to “shock” me, these days, it never fails to make me queasy, unlike many other past favorites.

If anything, I envy modern audiences the opportunity to see Seven for the first time, with fresh eyes. As miserable and soul-shatteringly horrifying as the film is, it possesses a feral power that manages to cut through years of processed bullshit, cutting straight to our emotional core. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding: 20 years later, I still remember the experience like it was yesterday. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a classic.

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