Before they were getting Oscar nominations by pandering to the mainstream with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, David Fincher directed Se7en and Brad Pitt starred in Cutting Class. He also starred in Se7en, but to watch his performance Cutting Class and see that Pitt has since been nominated for two roles is a testament to the Hollywood dream. Looking at Se7en today, it’s a masterpiece, but being a New Line executive looking at the crew list in 1995 probably wasn’t as promising. Pitt’s star was on the rise, yes, and Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey and R. Lee Ermey on the call sheet certainly didn’t hurt the film. But from the director of Alien 3 and the writer of the panned (but underrated!) Brainscan, that couldn’t have sounded like a winning combination. But it was. Se7en was a massive hit in 1995, oft considered one of the worst years in the history of the box office. It singlehandedly (well, with thanks to Silence of the Lambs) reinvented the thriller and paved the way for inferior knockoffs like 8MM (also penned by Se7en’s Andrew Kevin Walker) and the Saw franchise. Watching it today, and in crisp 1080p on this new Blu-ray, it’s not the gimmicky murders that stand out, but its deft and draining exploration of humanity.
We’re first brought into a city with no name, but whose atmosphere is built on overcast skies, street noise, helicopter swooshes and car horns. It’s an oppressive atmosphere, and one that tenured detective Lt. William Somerset (Freeman) wants to walk away from come retirement. He’s got, yep, seven days left until retirement, but there’s a killer on the loose masterminding a killing spree that no sane man will be able to leave behind. Somerset’s replacement is hot-headed pretty boy David Mills (Pitt), who’s done several years in crime investigations, but as Somerset points out, he’s never done it here. The city gives him a more than morbid welcome with their first case, an obese man who has eaten himself to death. His face lies lifeless in a bowl of spaghetti with the word “Gluttony” scratched onto the wall. Being the literate man that he is, Somerset is quick to note that gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins. That means there’s six more where that came from.
The next is greed, which has been written in blood on a slain lawyer’s floor. Then comes sloth, when a drug abusing pederast is found chained and drained to a bed. Somerset and Mills try and piece together clues, but the killer has been meticulous in hiding his identity, instead giving clues to the following murder in the seven death cycle. Pride sees a woman whose face has been forcibly disfigured chose death instead of a life of ugliness. Lust forces a man to strap on a bayonet-like phallus and tear up a prostitute. That leaves two more to go, but the killer, dubbed “John Doe” by the investigators, is saving the best for last.
While Somerset and Mills bury themselves in the case, Mills’ wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow, dating Pitt at the time), finds herself alone and with nobody to talk to in their less-than-fabulous inner-city apartment. In a telling breakfast confession, Tracy confides in Somerset the news that she’s pregnant. “Who would want to bring a child into this world?” Somerset asks as a hypothetical. The world looks to immediately become a better place when John Doe walks into the police precinct with bloodied hands and turns himself in to Mills. With still two sins remaining, envy and wrath, it seems curious the meticulous killer would surrender so soon. But as Mills and Somerset soon find out in one of the most vicious morality plays of all, his work is far from over.
The enduring legacy of Se7en upon modern thrillers and horror films are its morality-fused, morbid and creative deaths. You see that kind of grime in 8MM and you see the “let the sinners kill themselves with their own vices” motivations in Saw (particularly pride). But what those films, and the countless other imitators, have failed to emulate is precisely what makes Se7en such a powerful film today. Even with effects wizard Rob Bottin behind the grisly crime scenes, the violence and gore is never front and center in Se7en. Instead, Fincher shows apt maturity by using this repugnant atmosphere to set the stage to explore the humanity of his characters.
More than anything, Se7en is somber and restrained look at the purgatory veteran detective Somerset must traverse through before finally leaving his old life behind. In a meditative scene where Somerset surrounds himself by books in a close police library, he grabs Dante’s “The Divine Comedy”, which perfectly sums up his situation. It’s calamity all around him, and the irony with which John Doe does away with his victims, and eventually those close to Somerset, can only seem as one giant, unjust joke from God. These seven days before his retirement are like the days that Dante’s character spends suspended in death between good and evil, both forces weighing down upon him. It’s Freeman’s dilemma throughout the movie, and Freeman has never been better than here. He’d be employed for years playing the same kind of role in movies like Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider, but rather than just bearing witness to a stock investigator, Freeman gives us a sad, contemplative look into a man who has lived a good life in a terrible world. Freeman’s monologue to Paltrow during their breakfast scene is probably the film’s best.
Despite proving his mastery of visual storytelling with music videos, Fincher proves his maturity here by allowing his leads the chance to explore themselves and the subject matter. Again, Freeman’s quiet scenes ring loudest of all, and Pitt’s harrowing come-to-terms during the notorious twist finale is the best he’s ever acted. Paltrow doesn’t get a lot of screen time here in the boy’s club, but her loneliness and vulnerability prove central to both the finale and the overall development of the setting. We see the film mostly as a first-person account of the horrors of the city from the two detectives, but her brief scenes give us an objective view of how others view the sunless, oppressive environment. Spacey’s mopey madman (exploited before in The Usual Suspects and again to a degree later in The Life of David Gale) goes nicely against convention and avoids the safe Hollywood cliché that any killer is crazy and far from normal. His John Doe is very much a man of reason, and it’s his sanity, as Somerset points out in the film, that makes his grueling acts scariest of all.
That the acting is impeccable across the board shows just how Fincher was able to rid himself of his “music video director” stigma, although to discuss Se7en without talking about its visual and aural technique is to discredit amazing accomplishment. Darius Khondji’s (Funny Games, The City of Lost Children) cinematography is always moving, helping to incriminate the city and all its surroundings for the deaths since Fincher denies the viewer a sight at the killer until the finale. The sound design by Ren Klyce (who’s worked with Fincher on all his movies from Se7en onward) really lends to the atmosphere, always giving the city an inescapable ambience of urban decay. It’s all cut together with a storyboarded-like exactness by Richard Francis-Bruce’s editing, for which he was credited with the film’s only Oscar nomination. The title cards for each day suggest The Shining, but Fincher’s command over all the technical qualities of this production also certainly flag Stanley Kubrick. This is a film of visual and aural precision, and that kind of cold composure makes the events all the more horrifying, since all this horror seems to be happening under such calculated control.
Everyone remembers Se7en for the deaths and the ending – indeed that’s what I thought of first when I agreed to review the title for Warner Brothers. Watching it again though, after probably a good ten years since that landmark Platinum Edition DVD, I was surprised by just how mature and thoughtful the film was towards exploring human nature. The Saw franchise has virtually turned morality into a cheap gimmick, but Se7en’s exploration of big city secularism, loneliness and inhumanity is as pointed and powerful today was it was fifteen years ago. There’s nothing, from the politics to the visuals, that seems dated in the least bit, as Se7en slowly proves itself to become the morality play of our generation. The Divine Thriller, I suppose.
Se7en is a movie that’s never had to fight for a good transfer. It was first given a Criterion laserdisc upon initial release, and in 2000 New Line Cinema gave it one of the early DVD benchmark transfers with its two-disc Platinum Edition. Now, ten years later, Se7en has been given an all-new remaster in HD supervised by David Fincher. Like the previous discs, this is again of reference quality standard, with every single re-colored and re-timed for this new disc. Every shot has amazing sharpness and clarity, yet still possesses the natural and mood-building grain that defined the film in theaters. The darks are deep, all those black shadows rich and engulfing. Even tiny details, like the heat distortion from those vista shots during the finale or the texture on the close-up of book pages can be seen in stunning clarity. This transfer is perfect and should be the benchmark for years to come.
The DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio track is nearly as good as the video, allowing the urban soundscape life throughout all the speakers. Helicopters swoop from the rears around to the front, rain seems to poor from all directions and when the subway train runs beside the Mills apartment, you feel it as strongly as the characters do. The sound mix is a layered and nuanced one, and it is actively channeled throughout this mix. Apart from a few ambient effects, the surrounding effects are almost transparent, felt but not overly noticeable. Loud effects like gun shots and metal thuds are emitted with clarity even on the higher end, and at calculated moments this track can be forceful. It’s not overly showy, but it serves the horrific restraint of the film perfectly, and really couldn’t be better.
The Criterion LD was no slouch for extras, and the Platinum Edition two-disc DVD was even better. While a new documentary on the influence of the film would certainly do the film worthwhile, New Line has instead opted to go with the “if it ain’t broke” mentality. With four commentaries, additional scenes, alternate angles, still photos with commentary and video notebooks of John Doe’s diaries, it’s really tough to fault them for sticking with it.
The four commentaries are exhaustive, and feature Fincher at the helm for each. The first, “the stars” is with Fincher, Pitt and Freeman, with Freeman’s bits edited into Fincher’s and Pitt’s live recording session. The second, “the story” is with film historian Richard Dyer, screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, editor Richard Francis-Bruce, New Line’s former big daddy Michael DeLuca and Fincher all talking about the story and how it translated and evolved to film. “the picture” sees Fincher, Dyer and Bruce reunited along with the DP Darius Khondji and production designer Arthur Max to discuss the visual approach and the many stylistic techniques they employed to get the iconic look the film has today. Lastly, “the sound” has Fincher, Dyer, composure Howard Shore and sound designer Ren Klyce together to talk all things audio. Fincher is an earnest and entertaining speaker, and keeps all the tracks accessible and lively. There shouldn’t be too many questions remaining about the film after these eight hours of commentary, but still there are hours more of extras included.
The production design is documented in a number of well put together extras that were featured previously on the 2000 DVD (and all in standard definition). The first is a 15-minute piece with the photographer who did John Doe’s gluttony photos, and she reveals the process she took in making them look weathered and gritty. “Victor’s Decomposition” (2:17) shows the stills used in the film for sloth with commentary by Fincher as he talks about the casting of the emaciated man they used for the film. Another photog, Peter Sorel, was used for the police stills, and he provides commentary for all those for the six-minute piece. Sorel also did the production stills for the film, and he provides commentary in bunches for that batch of photos as well for the 11-minute duration. The designers of John Doe’s books also have their own 8-minute piece here, where stills from the books are presented as a montage. It’s tough to make out any of the text, which is unfortunate, but they still demonstrate the amazing attention to detail that was paid to these pieces of set decoration. All these extras are presented in 480p standard definition, and when it comes to the text, it’s a shame it wasn’t redone in 1080p.
Two alternate endings are presented, and while the first isn’t all that different than the one in the final film, the second is. The first mostly consists of wider, alternate takes and notably less gunfire, but otherwise it has the same message. The second, which is presented as an animated storyboard, offers a much different take. It’s interesting to note how differently all three characters were drawn compared to those that were cast. While this ending doesn’t work as well as the one that’s in the finished film, it certainly does have a place too and would have worked in the film as well. There are also a bunch of alternate scenes as well, including ones that establish a plot thread where we see Somerset’s dream home and this piece of wallpaper (a rose) from it that he carries around during the film. It’s a nice poetic touch, but as mentioned in the commentary that optionally overlays all 20-minutes of deleted scenes, it may have been a bit too blunt.
The title sequence also gets its own interactive segment, where three different visuals can be picked against several different audio tracks to view the transfer in its various forms of completion. It’s moderately interesting, and was cool in the early days of DVD, but now it seems a little cumbersome.
A full frame EPK from the theatrical release is also included, which has snippets from Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman and Gwenyth Paltrow, all just talking about their character motivations. It’s all puff for 7-minutes. There is also the theatrical trailer included in standard definition.
Rounding off the disc is an entire section devoted to the home theater mastering, featuring comparisons and footage between original and new audio and video masters for when the film was remastered on DVD in 2000. One part even gives you the chance to pick your audio and video tracks to compare them using alternate angles or audio. There are also three segments with commentary, one from the video team, one from the audio team and one from the color correctionist. Most interesting is the coloring segment, where he takes us through the coloring of all the shots during the final confrontation in the film. It’s an accurate reflection of what it’s like to get your film professionally corrected and an eye opening one for those who have never seen it.
Lastly, the entire package is done up in a 32-page digibook that’s printed on glossy, embossed paper. The pages are of top quality, although there isn’t a lot of new or interesting information presented text-wise. The packaging also refreshingly refrains from the floating heads syndrome of any major film with high profile stars, so kudos to New Line for that!
Se7en may be fifteen years vintage, but its dark, probing examination of morality and justice in an inhuman urbanity is still just as effective today as it was when it was first released. Its visuals and sin gimmick may have inspired a legion of followers, but its focus on character and a literary sense of understanding make it a work much more mature than its rock star sheen implies. New Line’s done a momentous job of preserving those iconic visuals, making this one of the best looking Blu-rays on the medium. The sound is near reference quality, too, with its ambiance and subtleties. While there are no new extras of note, the ten hours of bonus footage from the 2000 Platinum DVD are all included for posterity. It’s one of the landmark movies of our time with perfect HD presentation and a wealth of enlightening extras. It’d be a sin not to add this to the collection! Highly recommended.
*Because of the quality of the HD format, the clarity, resolution and color depth are inherently a major leap over DVD. Since any Blu-ray will naturally have better characteristics than DVDs, the rating is therefore only in comparison with other Blu-ray titles, rather than home video in general. So while a Blu-ray film may only get a C, it will likely be much better than a DVD with an A.
<Drool> Awesome review, I cannot wait to grab this later this week!
A powerful review for a powerful movie. Great job. I will add this one for sure.
Yes I will have to pick this up- I sold my dvd actually a couple years ago in anticipation of picking up an eventual blu-ray and I am glad to hear they did a good job with the transfer.
Great review, Rhett. I'll be picking this up soon. I'm kind of low on cash thanks to Madden and Halo: Reach
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