Imagine the grimiest and grimmest version of New York fathomable. A city constantly drenched in rain and apathy, and painted only in splatters of green, red, and black to amplify the atmosphere of despair. Against that backdrop, David Fincher delivered one of the most iconic crime thrillers of all time.
Se7en isn’t a fun watch. It might be a masterclass in filmmaking that will keep you on the edge of your seat even on repeated viewings. No one is watching this to unwind. But don’t let that scare you away from enjoying the movie that elevated David Fincher to a master of cinema.
As of November 1, Se7en is streaming now on HBO Max. Here’s why you need to watch it. And what you should know before you do.
For Fincher, Se7en came when he needed it most. The director had just flopped with Alien 3, and he was still struggling with that reality while on the set of his next movie. In an interview with The Ringer, assistant director Michael Alan Kahn recalled a bizarre and sort of hilarious conversation he had with Fincher on the set of Se7en:
“I went up to Fincher and I said, ‘Look at this! Look! It’s here! We’re here! You did it! We’re shooting a movie! There’s Morgan Freeman. There Brad [Pitt]. There’s Kevin Spacey… Isn’t this amazing? Isn’t this wonderful? This is what you wanted.’ And he looked at me as though I were from outer space and said, ‘No, it’s awful.’ And I looked at him and I said, ‘Why is it awful?’ And he said, and I mean sincerely, ‘Because now I have to get what’s in my head out of all you cretins.’”
What Fincher had in mind for Se7en was brilliant but deeply disturbing. The movie follows Morgan Freeman’s jaded Detective William Sommerset, who is pushing retirement and just out of the door of his precinct before hotheaded hotshot Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), a rookie, is tasked with accompanying him to a curious crime scene where a man has quite literally eaten to death.
Body horror abounds in Se7en as Sommerset and Mills continue to unravel a series of creatively gory and religiously motivated mutilations of victims that embody, at least in their killer’s eyes, the Seven Deadly Sins (that’s gluttony, greed, sloth, lust, pride, envy, and wrath, if you need a refresher). While Mills gets a kick out of solving the case, Sommerset is increasingly concerned with their criminal’s psychological profile and the lengths they’re willing to go.
The brightest light in Se7en is Gwyneth Paltrow’s Tracy Mills, who’s harboring a secret from her husband and confiding in Sommerset during a difficult time. She is often lit against warm tones and dressed in white hues, a possibly too on-the-nose directorial choice to symbolize her role as sacrificial lamb.
The John Doe actor reveal (Kevin Spacey, which was kept under wraps until the film’s release) isn’t the biggest shocker here. It’s his character’s giddy, almost childish glee in sealing the detectives’ fate that serves as the ultimate twist.
Se7en was a smart $33 million budget investment, spending four consecutive weeks atop the American box office on its way to grossing $327.3 million worldwide. Roger Ebert lauded it as a “great movie,” and deemed it Fincher’s darkest feature yet, but that was in 1995. Fincher went on to create a range of somber psychological thrillers like The Game (1997), Panic Room (2002), Zodiac (2007), and Netflix’s Mindhunter (2017-2019), all of which showed that Se7en wasn’t a fluke.
Although Se7en has gone down as one of America’s best neo-noir crime thrillers (and it scored Pitt the coveted “Most Desirable Male” nod at the 1996 MTV Movie Awards), Fincher, a notorious control freak, had some retrospective edits.
“I think that I have a greater understanding of how to help a story in the telling of it,” he told Little White Lies in a 2020 interview. “I had made two movies in a row that were kind of assaultive in terms of the way they presented the material, and I just sort of felt like, I don’t know if I’m that interested in engaging the eye in the same way.
“I liked the idea of presenting things in a tableaux or a proscenium and watching them. Maybe not cutting as quickly, or shooting as many close-ups. Your taste just evolves.”
We may have some suggestions for cast swaps in light of the serious allegations made against Brad Pitt and Kevin Spacey, but we disagree with Fincher about the editing: Don’t mess with perfection. Se7en still holds up as one of the most stressful on-screen watches in cinematic history, making its viewers sweat as they try to put the puzzle pieces together alongside detectives William Sommerset and David Mills.
Even after repeat watches, the desire to outsmart John Doe endures, although the outcome — a nihilistic, hellish allegory — never changes. But the adrenaline rush of watching Se7en is still worth the suffering that comes once the credits roll.
Se7en is streaming now on HBO Max.