Twenty years after Brad Pitt asked the least rhetorical question in cinema history, moviegoers still remember Se7en for its ending — its bleak, unrelenting, punch-in-the-gut ending. Sure, before the credits roll, Morgan Freeman tries to put a bright spin on things by quoting Ernest Hemingway. But we, the audience, know better: The world is not, in fact, worth fighting for — not if it really is the box of shit this movie has taught us to think of it as. The head-in-the-box reveal is what people remember, but what sticks with me long after David Bowie’s “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” has stopped playing is that bleakness. The tragic ending of Detective Mills’s (Brad Pitt) marriage and career is shocking and horrible, but it’s really the grace note at the end of a dirge that’s been playing through the whole film. “This isn’t going to have a happy ending,” Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) says about the John Doe case, but he’s talking about the movie itself. There’s no way Se7en can end happily (despite what studio execs apparently wanted back in 1995). From its cold open and credit sequence, Se7en tells us it’s going to end exactly as it began: without hope.
The first crime scene we see Somerset investigate is a domestic dispute that ended with shots fired and a dead body. “Did the kid see it?” Somerset asks. And the cop he’s working with scoffs cynically: “What kind of fucking question is that?[…] ‘Did the kid see it?’ Who gives a fuck? He’s dead, his wife killed him. Anything else has nothing to do with us.” It’s an attitude that will resurface throughout the movie — mind your own business, even as the screams from next door grow louder and louder — that sets the film’s tone of helplessness and cynicism.
Everything about Se7en serves to emphasize the very worst parts of Nameless City that is never identified as New York, but very clearly is. It’s almost always raining, and the gutters are full of dirty water. Browns, blacks, and grays dominate the color palette. The brightest settings — Somerset’s apartment, the Pride victim’s home — are toned down by ample shadows or composed of shots in close-up that emphasize the claustrophobia and hemmed-in-ness of the city. There are bodily fluids and cockroaches and garbage everywhere. And, everywhere, evidence that everything is terrible.
Morgan Freeman is the moral center of the film, and we look to him for some glimmer of hope. He is at the heart of most of the movie’s moments of levity. Bach’s Suite No. 3 in D Major soars as he does research in the library — one of the few settings with high ceilings and open spaces. And he tries to hold onto hope with the final line of the film. But he is just as susceptible to the reality of the film. He is only seven days from retirement when the film begins. “What in the hell are you gonna do with yourself out there, Somerset?” the Police Captain asks. “Don’t you feel it? Don’t you feel that feeling? You’re not going to be a cop anymore.”
“That’s the whole idea,” Somerset tells him. And then he relates a story about a man who got attacked, robbed, and then stabbed in both eyes. “This happened just last night, about four blocks from here.”
“Yeah, I read about it,” says the Police Captain.
It’s just another violent act in a violent city to him. To everyone.
“I don’t understand this place anymore,” Somerset says.
“It’s the way it’s always been,” insists the Captain.
And that is precisely the problem. It’s too hard to be the only beacon of hope in the world of Se7en. Somerset walks away from the scene of the final crime, nothing but a shadow, as dark as the landscape around him.
- Here are 14 things you might not know about Se7en from Mental Floss.
- I have to link to this article just because the title cracks me up. (Also, it addresses the ending of the film, which in revised drafts was apparently very different.)
- Se7en writer Andrew Kevin Walker was evidently very depressed when he lived in New York and sort of hated the city. See how hatred fuels the artistic process!
- In a movie with not a lot of laughs (although it's got some memorable humorous moments, for sure), my very favorite comes from R. Lee Ermey as the Police Captain.
- Here's a really great piece about Se7en's opening credit sequence, which does a lot to set the tone of the film.
- Best Se7en-inspired internet meme ever: