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What’s in the Box?: The Terrifying Truth of ‘Se7en’

David Fincher’s horrifying breakthrough continues to scare us. In an excerpt from a new book about the director’s work, open the box and see what evil lurks in the hearts of man.

New Line Cinema/Abrams Books/Ringer illustration

“Wanting people to listen,” says John Doe (Kevin Spacey) to Detectives Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt), “you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer. And then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention.”

The idea of a movie directed with a sledgehammer conjures up a bludgeoning clumsiness, or maybe accidental expressionism. Observing the Jackson Pollock–like splatter of another senseless murder at the beginning of Se7en, William Somerset sighs, “Look at all that passion all over the wall.” From there unfolds a series of precise strokes—its pace as finely calibrated as the metronome in Somserset’s study, its shocks as carefully curated as a museum retrospective. In this gallery analogy, there is a didactic aspect to an artist using excess as a tool of communication, and a real–world precedent for such pummelling innovations as the ones used by John Doe. In 1971, the American artist Chris Burden, whose oeuvre included shutting himself inside a locker for five days and crucifying himself to a Volkswagen Beetle, arranged for a friend to fire a bullet from a small-caliber rifle into his arm as part of a performance piece titled Shoot. “In this instant,” Burden reflected later, “I was a sculpture.”

Ever the vanguard artiste, John Doe adapts Burden’s gambit while interrogating its mixture of self-aggrandizement and self-endangerment—the frisson that occurs when art is remodeled into a life or death venture. Burden made his mark without resorting to full-on martyrdom; as a self-styled fin-de-siècle aesthete jointly projecting his superiority and self-loathing onto the world around him, John Doe goes further. He has to, because he’s on the margins of a marketplace oversaturated with morbid images and ideas. In order to make an impact, he must swing for the fences.

Se7en embodies and interrogates such blunt-force strategies, enfolding a meditation on—and enactment of—avant-garde artistry in genre-movie packaging. The film’s outer shape is that of a thriller, specifically the kind of gritty, big-city police procedural patented in the sweltering ’70s by Sidney Lumet: preparing for his first day on the job, David Mills (Brad Pitt) jokingly tells his wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), “Serpico’s got to go to work.” (“You might want to get rid of this little crusty in your eye, Serpico,” she responds sleepily). More significantly, Se7en erects itself as a landmark in the history of serial-killer movies. The genre began in earnest in 1931 with Fritz Lang’s M, whose guilt-wracked pederast is played by Peter Lorre as a mewling victim of his own insatiable compulsions, as well as a broken byproduct of early 20th-century modernity. Playing a man whose need to harm others reflects his own sense of victimization (“who knows what it’s like to be me?”) the actor is unforgettable, but the film’s other star is the steel and glass labyrinth of Weimar-era Berlin, which provides Lorre’s squirrelly Hans Beckert with an endless array of hiding places from cop and fellow criminal alike.

Lorre’s anguish at the end of M would be revisited and deepened by Anthony Perkins in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Carl Boehm in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), twin masterpieces which, in their respective ways—elliptically in Hitchcock; allegorically in Powell—equated murderous psychosis with voyeurism, if not cinephilia itself. Psycho’s staccato editing rhythms slashed, viscerally and subliminally, through both the fraying barriers of Hays Code censorship and spectatorial defense mechanisms, presaging a healthy cycle of serial-killer films in the 1970s—an era in which the popularization of psychopathology became a multi-platform growth industry encompassing both “true crime” fiction and grindhouse cinema. The eerie proximity to Hollywood of Charles Manson and the thinly veiled depiction of San Francisco’s Zodiac Killer in Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971)which picked up Lang’s vision of the city-as-labyrinth and ran with it through winding streets—were key markers in this development, as were faux-naturalistic shockers like Wes Craven’s Mansonian The Last House on the Left (1973) and the best-selling novels of Thomas Harris; 1981’s Red Dragon filtered authentic Quantico protocol through allusions to William Blake and Guignol grander than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Taking off from Harris’s Gothic potboiler formula while blending in phantasmagorical social satire, Bret Easton Ellis’s controversial 1991 novel American Psycho, about a Wall Street power broker nursing a secret identity as a serial killer, brought the genre to a bleeding edge; that same year, Jonathan Demme’s film The Silence of the Lambs, a Harris adaption featuring Anthony Hopkins on irresistible form as Hannibal Lecter—in whose immaculate personage Norman Bates and his exposition-dispensing psychiatrist were humorously and horrifyingly combined—won five Academy Awards. Both of these pop-cultural conversation pieces fed indirectly into the creation of Se7en, a risky $30 million bet by the ever-hip production outfit New Line Cinema (known as “The House That Freddy Built” thanks to A Nightmare on Elm Street [1984]) against serial-killer fatigue. The film opened in the fall of 1995 with a cryptic ad campaign and minimal hype and grossed over $300 million worldwide, emerging as an oddly paradoxical crowd-pleaser: the sort of movie your friends urged you to see and warned you against in the same breath.

As with American Psycho and The Silence of the Lambs, Se7en draws its strength from a set of well-established conventions while also distancing itself from them. It does this mostly via the toxic potency of its visual style, which strips the rust off of the script’s cop movie tropes and exposes their gleaming bones. Meanwhile, the serial-killer material, which is so self-consciously lurid as to threaten unintentional comedy, is elevated, if not consecrated, by the story’s central gimmick: a suite of murders inspired by the seven deadly sins, carried out consecutively by John Doe as a sermon wherein Old Testament messaging is etched on the bodies of his victims and conveyed to the masses by a sensation-hungry media establishment playing into his game.

As high concepts go, Se7en’s is dizzyingly vertiginous—which is to say pretentious, a quality the film owns straight-up. It’s a conceit most poetically expressed by the set-piece in the silent, church-like library whose cavernous expanse is illuminated by a set of golden-hued desk lamps—a place of refuge and literary worship containing the wisdom of the ages. “All these books,” Detective Somerset sighs admiringly to the security guards while wandering the stacks to the strains of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major. “A world of knowledge at your fingertips ... and you play cards.” Just as Se7en’s gore attempts to outstrip its predecessors, the film’s omnipresent intellectualism exceeds the po-faced Freudian slippage of Psycho or the Lacanian quid pro quo of The Silence of the Lamb; the film is pure pulp, but its gristle comes fully marinated in a thick stew of scriptural and liturgical references.

Anachronisms and artifacts are embedded in Se7en’s aesthetic. One potentially illuminating way to look at the film is as a kind of contemporary “cabinet of curiosities,” or wunderkammer, a Medieval invention housing a set of disparate, exotic objects like a miniaturized museum. Se7en’s first wunderkammer moment comes during its opening credit sequence, conceived by designer Kyle Cooper as a hallucinatory collage (shot specially by Harris Savides) conveying John Doe’s abject worldview and artisanal process through shots of scribbled prose and stitched together notebooks. The unsettling bits of handwritten text and grotesque medical-textbook-style photographs get hammered into place by the industrial beats of Nine Inch Nails, whose 1994 album The Downward Spiral anticipated and heralded Se7en’s extremity (in the same year, Pearl Jam styled the liner notes of their hit record Vitalogy as a faux and grotesque medical textbook cataloguing a set of human abnormalities).

Se7en’s wunderkammer motif is literalized later on during a tracking shot along a shelf in John Doe’s apartment that displays trophies from his victims. Beyond serving as a concise recap of the film’s story line thus far, the shot links motifs of obsessive sadism, eccentric collectorship, and outsider artistry. A row of symmetrically arranged tomato sauce cans nods comically toward Andy Warhol, but also, more generally, the mix of conceptual rigor and corporeal horror suggests an atrocity exhibition co-signed by Ed Gein and Damien Hirst, in whose distinctive disciplines and artistic traditions Se7en’s bad guy could be said to operate. As a result, John Doe’s sledgehammer analogy, including that cloying acknowledgement of feeling the need to be heard—dial M for murder—scan as a weaponized sotto voce aside on behalf of its director, halfway between a brag and an ironic plea for clemency. Whatever else you can say about Se7en, it is not a tap on the shoulder; whatever ambivalences or contradictions David Fincher cultivates in his second feature, he gets, and keeps, our strict attention.

“A Sickening Catalogue of Sins, Every One of Them Deadly,” screamed the header to Janet Maslin’s review of Se7en in The New York Times, evoking the lurid tabloid covers strewn throughout Fincher’s film—grotty dispatches chronicling a killing spree in a large, unnamed American city. “Why here—why this place?” queries Somerset of his new partner Mills upon their first meeting; Freeman places such an emphasis of disgust on those final two words that they gesture at some larger, collective understanding of hell-on-earth. Maslin’s description of Se7en’s “grim urban environment” understates the extent to which Arthur Max’s borderline-dystopian production design sets and maintains the film’s tone, while her ultimate appraisal of the film as “dull” intersects interestingly and contrastingly with John Doe’s wink-nudge explanation of his (and Fincher’s) shock-to-the-system methodology. “Not even bags of body parts, a bitten-off tongue or a man being forced to cut off a pound of his own flesh (think ‘The Merchant of Venice’),” writes Maslin, “keep [Se7en] from being dull.” Her inventory is a few corpses short: the critic might have added to her list an obese shut-in fatally force-fed spaghetti; a woman penetrated with a weaponized leather-shop strap-on; myriad self-inflicted disfigurements; and a decapitated scion of Hollywood royalty—a sleight-of-head magic trick that serves as Se7en’s missing piece-de-resistance.

Most of the initial dissent against Se7en—Maslin’s review included—was rooted in the old shibboleth of style over substance. What the film’s supporters saw, though, was an act of transubstantiation in which one became the other. “What I’ve done is going to be puzzled over, studied, and followed,” promises John Doe to his pursuers, and indeed, time has conferred a mostly rapturous critical consensus on Se7en highlighted by Richard Dyer’s 2008 BFI Classics monograph, which distributes its author’s analysis under a septet of alliterative chapter headings encompassing “sin,” “story,” “structure,” “seriality,” “sound,” “sight,” and “salvation.” Dyer takes Se7en seriously while still allowing for its gallows humor, and it is a funny movie, especially the running joke of Mills feeling double-teamed by Somerset’s high-minded condescension and John Doe’s intellectual preening while he struggles through Cliff’s Notes. “Fucker’s got a library card, doesn’t make him Yoda,” the cop snarls, consolidating his anti-intellectualism under the sign of Star Wars. His quip also points at Se7en’s most provocative and problematic aspect: the veneration of its serial-killer figure as a modern guru with something to say about society. That this potential sticking point is completely indivisible from the things that make Se7en powerful is a good place to begin considering the question of Fincher’s transformative directorial presence.

After his experience helming Alien 3 for 20th Century Fox, Fincher claimed that he’d rather “die of colon cancer than make another movie.” This oft-quoted, grandly self-pitying proclamation clarifies Alien 3’s themes of noble martyrdom, with Ellen Ripley dying by her own hand for her corporate overseers’ sins. It also establishes the morbid mindset necessary to embrace a property like Se7en, which came to Fincher after being rejected by its original director and subjected to studio demands for a more palatable rewrite—i.e., one that didn’t end with a head in a box. The draft with the head in the box, as Fincher is fond of pointing out, was the one that he preferred.

The details of Se7en’s genesis as an edgy industry outlier speak to a mid-’90s moment where mini-major studios like New Line were all aiming to make their own versions of The Silence of the Lambs, which in addition to its awards haul was a tantalizing case study in return on investment. New Line’s hunger for an R-rated hit connected with Fincher’s yearning for genuine directorial control—a lust that’s legible not only in Se7en’s laboriously worked-over and bleach-bypassed frames, but also at the core of its story, with its shifting power dynamics and ever-deepening ambiguity about who’s pursuing whom. In interviews, Fincher admitted that he was bored by the ritualistic police-procedural aspects of Se7en’s script; what kept him hooked was the creeping, insidious sense of purpose encoded in John Doe’s project, and the vise-like tension therein between surprise and inevitability. “I found myself getting more and more trapped in this kind of evil,” he told Empire in 1996. “And even though I felt uncomfortable about being there, I had to keep going.”

Walker’s screenplay is notably bereft of detours or digressions, forging relentlessly ahead and littering its dialogue with suggestions of momentum. These begin following Somerset’s admonition to his partner to “look” and “listen” in a city whose baseline threshold for brutality is above and beyond. (Walker wrote Se7en as an anti–love letter to New York after an unhappy stint living there in the 1980s.) “I’ve worked homicide for five years,” Mills protests, before Somerset chides him, sharply: “Not here.” Mills nods grudgingly, and his partner continues: “Over the next seven days, Detective, you’ll do me the favor of remembering that.”

Instantly, a pre-ordained time frame is established: “the next seven days,” initially identified as the length of time prior to Somerset’s announced retirement date, and repurposed predictively as the span of John Doe’s rampage. As Se7en continues, the characters’ conversations keep alluding to that same numerologically determined vanishing point, as well as a more general sense of impending doom. “You can expect five more of these,” says Somerset to his superior (R. Lee Ermey) after the discovery of the second body. “This isn’t going to have a happy ending,” he tells Mills later on, setting up the final act. “I feel like saying more, but I don’t want to ruin the surprise,” smirks John Doe over the phone, taunting his pursuers and the viewer simultaneously with the knowledge of his eventual coup de grâce.

Of course, the unhappy ending prophesied by Detective Somerset is the surprise alluded to by John Doe. While there has been much documentation about the different incarnations of Walker’s script and, in particular, the events of its climax, the central idea—seven murders for seven sins in seven days—was always present. It’s a conceptual framework so tight that it could potentially paralyze any director who took it on, but for Fincher, the script’s rigid boundaries and smaller scale were in sync with a resolve to downsize his process after Alien 3’s gigantism. “I thought I was making a tiny genre movie,” the director told Sight and Sound in 1996. “I tried not to have a hundred fucking trucks, but every time you take the camera out of the box, it gets complicated.” The same fastidiousness that had seen Fincher branded as a control freak was now perfectly suited to a parable of perfectionism—one deceptively less invested in its archetypal crime-solvers and their occasional, all-too-human sloppiness than the ways in which they’re instrumentalized by their quarry as victims and even accidental perpetrators.

In terms of point of view, Se7en is recognizably aligned with the two cops, who are dichotomized by a set of Platonic binaries: not only veteran and rookie—a contrast smartly informed by the casting of ace character actor Freeman and emerging heartthrob Pitt—but also Black and white (which tapped into the racialized “wisdom” associated with Freeman’s famous roles in Driving Miss Daisy [1989] and The Shawshank Redemption [1994]); bachelor and husband (the two only start to bond after Tracy arranges a group dinner date); cerebral and impulsive (Somerset’s physical and linguistic delicacy are offset by Mills’s thick syllables and two-fisted posturing); and, most crucially, pragmatism and idealism.

On this point, William Somerset is a nicely layered character, at once principled and evasive, familiar and yet oddly remote as an entry point into the story. Freeman projects his usual intelligence, but also a flinty reticence that’s not always sympathetic—or convincing. Somerset’s capitulation via early retirement to the ambient helplessness of his surroundings is no less misanthropic for being cloaked in the language of home truths (“apathy is a solution,” he sighs bitterly). Meanwhile, Mills’s belief in the eternal verities of justice and retribution (and dishing them out) is only partially compromised by his congenital hotheadedness: his joke about wanting to be Frank Serpico comes from a place of real longing for heroism. As much as Somerset tries to suggest that this attitude is misplaced, Pitt’s pumped-up yet emotionally translucent performance—sandwiched in between Freeman’s relaxed mastery and Spacey’s implosive pyrotechnics—never loses sight of his character’s essential righteousness.

Se7en cultivates plenty of pleasing odd-couple comedy from the detectives’ contrasting manner and slow creep toward friendship, an arc derived from racially-coded buddy-cop movies like Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967) and Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon (1987), although lessons about racial solidarity are not on the film’s agenda. The pair’s warring viewpoints ultimately converge, however perversely, in the work and words of John Doe, which frighteningly and suggestively synthesizes Somerset’s nihilism—his contention that people are beyond saving—with Mills’s impulsive idealism, while superseding both on an aesthetic level. Because the world in which Se7en takes place—this place, as Somerset calls it; this city, as later echoed by Tracy—is tailor-made, without exception, to John Doe’s (and Fincher’s) judgmental specifications, the detectives’ attempts to foil him can only be futile. When Somerset cries at a moment of truth that, “John Doe has the upper hand,” it’s less startling than reassuring: the actor’s delivery generates the feeling of jagged, metallic pieces locking seamlessly into place.

Se7en’s most serrated point—its amoral, and thoroughly auteurist, organizing principle—is that Somerset and Mills’ double act embodies not law-and-order, but an existential threat to the satisfaction promised by what its auteur-as-killer calls, “the whole complete act.” Which is to say: the satisfaction, for us in the audience, of perceiving the complete and fully realized work of art that Se7en at once narrativizes and stands in for in a wryly self-allegorizing fashion.

Excerpt from the new book David Fincher: Mind Games by Adam Nayman published by Abrams, available November 23, 2021. Text copyright © 2021 Adam Nayman and Little White Lies.