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But Seriously, What’s in the Box?

Twenty-five years after the premiere of David Fincher’s ‘Se7en,’ one “mystery” still lingers

New Line Cinema/Ringer illustration

On the cusp of the 25th anniversary of Se7en and the 10th anniversary of The Social Network, The Ringer hereby dubs September 21-25 David Fincher Week. Join us all throughout the week as we celebrate and examine the man, the myth, and his impeccable body of work.

“What’s in the box?!”

It’s a line that, as delivered by Brad Pitt in David Fincher’s Se7en, has become as iconic as the film itself. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, certainly you’ve heard Pitt squeal those four words, or at least heard an acquaintance perform a rendition. But … what is in the box? For all that is known in this world, we still don’t know, for sure, what made Mr. Pitt feel such distress. Sure, Kevin Spacey’s John Doe makes reference to Detective Mills’s wife (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) and tells a whole story about her that definitely doesn’t end well, just before Mills’s partner opens up said box. But Fincher, the sly dog that he is, never shows us what’s in the box. And John Doe is an admitted prankster—a grotesque prankster who takes things way too far, but a prankster nonetheless. If we don’t see the contents of the box ourselves, and Doe is the only one on record on the matter, well, then the possibilities are endless.

Shouldn’t we be asking more questions? Isn’t that what ~~film study~~ is all about? Is it not our liberty—nay, responsibility—to question everything at every turn in spite of ample logic and evidence? Yes, exactly—I’m glad you agree and answered all of those questions in the way that I wanted you to (I assume). You should applaud yourself for always seeking the TRUTH. And you should keep reading, as me and my fellow detectives posit our best guesses to a question that’s lingered since 1995: What’s in the box? Andrew Gruttadaro

Shea Serrano: I know what’s in the box. I definitely know what it is. The implication is that Gwyneth Paltrow’s head is in the box, yes. But that’s not actually what it is. What it actually is is far more valuable (sorry, Gwyneth), and far mysterious (again: sorry, Gwyneth), and a secret that the movie goes out of the way to avoid spilling. The thing that’s in the box is: a slip of paper with the name of the city where the movie takes place written down on it. That’s what’s in there. That’s why John Doe had the upper hand. Everyone else in the movie agreed to never ever say what city they were in—that’s a big part of the reason that the movie is so effective, and so enthralling. John Doe, however, the dastardly villain that he is, changed his mind about keeping that secret. He decided, “You know what? I have put together the greatest, most insidious, most unsettling string of murders ever in movie history. How best to end this? By spoiling everything that David Fincher has built here by sharing what city it is that we’re all currently in, of course!” So that’s what’s in the box. That’s why Brad Pitt was so mad. That’s why Brad Pitt had to kill him.

Rob Mahoney: It’s a potpourri of subtle digs, all aimed at Detective Mills. It’s clear by the end of Se7en that John Doe is a keen observer of Mills’s life, from domestic bliss to professional bluster. What better way to drive this impulsive man to Wrath than to prey on the fragility of his ego? Inside the box is a new tie to replace the basketballs-swishing-through-nets motif that Mills has worn for weeks. There’s some instructional cassettes on the finer points of parkour, so that the next time Mills chases a murder suspect through buildings and down fire escapes, he might actually catch him. And since Mills busted up his arm in pursuit, there’s a cast scratcher for those hard-to-reach spots. There’s a Costco-sized vat of hair clay to keep his hair mussed just so, no matter the constant rain. There’s even the photo Doe took of Mills while literally standing right in front of him, framed with a Pinterestian inscription to commemorate their bond and the detective’s failings. (Something like: “Good friends are like stars … you don’t always see them, but you know they’re always there!”) And beneath it all, at the bottom of this little care package, is an extra clip for when the ever-predictable Mills—in a fit of rage—finally empties his. Even the box mocks him: “Please,” it begs, “handle with care.” This is Doe’s final lesson: Of all the sins, none is quite so deadly as passive aggression.

Mose Bergmann: What’s in the box? Oh I’ll tell you what’s in the box, Brad. It’s the goddamn trailer for Benjamin Button. That’s right. A portal to the future 13 years from now—that’s you. Yeah, that ugly wrinkly little runt right there, Brad, that is you. This is what you do for an Oscar. You and Fincher, both of you. It’s a period piece adapted from an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story. This is where the both of you are at in 2008. Calm down, calm down. Quit waving that gun around, I’ve got some good news: You’re fucking phenomenal in it. You play, like, an octogenarian Cabbage Patch Kid throughout his entire backward life, smoothing out scene to scene, and you capture the deeply felt melancholy of a life lived in reverse perfectly. Your boy Fincher nails a unique sort of magical realism you’d expect from, well, him, and your costars are Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton, Taraji P. Henson, and Mahershala Ali. The special effects are groundbreak— what’s that you’re asking? “Did it win anything?” Well, a few technical awards, but no major cat—wait Brad! Calm down! No! Don’t shoot him!

Miles Surrey: Like the Nazis opening the Ark of the Covenant, what Brad Pitt sees upon gazing into the box at the end of Se7en is so horrifying it’s almost beyond comprehension. Real internet sleuths know that the truth is much more sinister and complex: After acquiring the Time Stone from Christopher Nolan, David Fincher filled the box with a conceptual imagining of the future lifestyle brand Goop.

Goop, for all intents and purposes, represents the death of Paltrow the Thespian and, upon hatching from a proverbial jade egg, the rise of Paltrow the Wellness Guru. The high markups and highly questionable health benefits of Goop’s product line are greed personified—a sin all too common among Hollywood circles, and a key theme for John Doe and David Fincher. Brad Pitt thought he was simply making a grimy psychological thriller with an up-and-coming filmmaker. It was only when he peered into the infamous box that he realized Se7en was a documentary, a warning about his then-girlfriend, and a window into an even darker future. Time for a juice cleanse of the mind, am I right?

Gruttadaro: It’s a little-known fact that the scene at the end of Se7en is almost entirely improvised. When a delivery truck barged into his set, David Fincher was smart enough to keep the cameras rolling.

It’s also a little-known fact that Brad Pitt hates green beans. Hates them. If he and a green bean are in the same room together, he will leave that room and then set it on fire. One time, Doug Ellin ordered green beans at a restaurant that Brad Pitt was also at; that’s why Brad Pitt never made a cameo in Entourage.

So anyway, Pitt’s filming with Spacey as Morgan Freeman goes to receive the package, and already something stinks—the green beans, specifically. That unmistakable stench of seared olive oil, garlic, and blanched garbage. Pitt could smell it from a mile away. He kept screaming and screaming—“What’s in the box? What’s in the box?”—hoping that if he got loud enough his sense of smell would stop working. But you can’t outscream beans. That’s a lesson Kevin Spacey had to learn. (This was all pretty heavily reported by some early fan sites back in ’95, until Pitt made a deal with Big Green Bean to scrub the unseemly story from history.)

I’m just kidding. Of course this is just for fun. Of course we know what was in the box: Gwyneth Paltrow’s residual checks for playing a young Wendy Darling in Hook, right?


OK. The mystery continues, I suppose.