Seven: The Violence of a Cinematic Hellscape

Originally published September 22, 2015.

There are less than 20 gunshots fired in David Fincher’s 1995 film Seven, each exchanged between David Mills and John Doe. If you don’t count Detective Somerset’s late face slap, there is only one wounding act of violence committed onscreen. It’s an oft-shared description offered by cinephiles and aspiring screenwriters and critics: Seven is, in the most basic sense, a non-violent film, even as watching it feels like a very violent viewing experience. For most of its run-time, Seven, which this week celebrates its 20th anniversary, is a noir- serial killer thriller built around already murdered corpses rather than murderous acts.  Yet, this basic quantifiable description feels misleading to anyone watching or re-watching the film, anyone caught within or recently escaped from the spiraling trap of the film’s increasingly unsettling, malicious scenes.

Seven is widely credited for displaying influence from prior detective films and inspiring several films of comparable serial killer concern, but few films in either comparative line have less character violence and yet even fewer give as distinct an impression of having witnessed something truly violent.

Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker has stated that the initial draft for Seven was heavily inspired by his unhappy experience living in New York City and, particularly, his commute from Astoria, Queens to Manhattan. Fincher’s cinematic translation of the script seems to be mindful of Walker’s influencing mood, as the director constructed a film in which his central characters are psychically destroyed by the nightmare-scape of their unnamed city before they are even given a chance to destroy one another. Which is why describing Seven as a “non-violent” movie only works if we narrow the conversational definition of violence to specifically denote a hateful, physically wounding act brought upon one character by another. A broader and more useful definition of the term would include the smaller assaults Fincher commits upon his characters and viewers in his first (and, I would offer, best) successful work. Because that definition helps us understand that Seven is a very, very violent film.

It goes beyond the implied hyper-violence of Kyle Cooper’s opening credit sequence or the disturbing anecdotes shared by both detectives, who recall the details the way others might recall a dream (It’s a bit strange that Mills can’t recall the name of his murdered partner, right?). It’s more than the multiple rain-soaked, slow moving car sequences wherein the windows display faceless victims and blurry arrests. Even worse than wailing sirens, cries, gunshots, and train-induced vibrations that interrupt every scene that takes place in safe domestic areas.  Seven stands in measurable contradiction to the rest of Fincher’s highly-stylized filmography as an exercise that is wholly lacking in style. The cinematic presentation, through Darius Khondji’s camera, is a carefully articulated hell, where production design and framing ignores utility, balance, and intuition to disorient and, at times, attack the viewer’s movie-informed perspective.

If one were to think of the screen as a combination of four hemispheres, or if one were to imagine the frame’s center creating an x-y axis intersection, then one might begin to understand how directors use the space and balance on the screen to dictate attention, subliminally communicate character’s conditions, or generally supplement the mood and tone of the story.  However, in its scenes of less narrative weight, those that just casually observe the characters and their world, Seven forfeits all sense of screen geography and linear arrangement.

The early Tuesday title screen (above) is an example of this intentional anti-cinema. Where most still frame title shots offer some sort of visual self-consciousness, this illustration seems almost haphazard, incidental, a shot of a street that had no time to be prepared for its inclusion within a film. The projected text is off-center in both vertical and horizontal measure, the consuming black shadow and hulking streetlight post in the Eastern hemisphere has no counter-balance in the Western half of the screen.  The stacks of newspapers are tilted and uneven, breaking any potential vertical or horizontal plane that might guide viewer’s attention to something useful. The entire thing looks broken, ugly, a sort of violent affront to the viewer, who has been subtly conditioned to respond to all of the cues that are missing in this frame.

Consider also the police department (pictured above) in which Detective Mills (Brad Pitt, left) and Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman, Right) work. Basic object recognition tells us that this at least has all of the markers of a movie police station (the desks, the coats hung over chairs, the busy background), and yet something feels distinctly unpleasant about its presentation. To begin, the overhanging lights are impossibly low and uncomfortably dull.  The rows of desks are also mindfully disruptive to the viewing eye; the left row (Pitt’s) seems to pull straight forward from the door while the right (Freeman’s) veers away, for no clear functional reason, breaking the parallelism one would expect to see in a movie office or a real office. Pitt’s leaning forward and Freeman’s backward posture highlight this counter-intuitive cinematic gap.  Further, moving back from the foreground and from the viewer’s position in the scene, the desks grow awkwardly closer until, finally, at the doorway, two officers are sitting so close that their backs almost touch, completely blocking entry and departure. Fincher’s commitment to ugly-fying the world of these characters removes all cinematic and real world common sense in his scene layout.

And, lest we think this singular shot to be a hasty, anomalous error, shortly thereafter the film offers a shot of Detective Mills’ desk. In this shot, pictured above, we see a completely chaotic arrangement of again familiar markers.  In the Southeast portion of the screen, we can detect the angular edge of the desk, which, in standard and screen arrangement, would help dictate the placement of everything atop the desk. Except in this case, that guiding sense of reason is wholly absent. Detective Mills’ name placard, which should be expected to sit facing outward on any of the other three edges, rests on the one spot on the desk that makes the least sense, a placement one might see as an audience indicator of whose desk is being observed if it weren’t for the envelope already sharing the same information. Further, the computer keyboard cuts sharply away from the sitting edge of the desk, a position that would make using the keyboard an uncomfortable task, and again, the non-functioning placement is highlighted as intentional by the parallel placement of the stapler.

The same destructive arrangement manifests in the temporarily shared private office of the two detectives (pictured above). The opposing walls make for non-parallel vertical planes. The hanging clipboards are uneven and incongruent, ruining a horizontal linear arrangement that points to nothing of importance in the first place. The lamp on Mills’ desk, in its prominence, the closest thing to an anchor that exists within the frame, is tilted inward at an angle that renders its light useless to its user and the viewer, therefore adding nothing but distraction to the scene.  The handles on the file cabinets are crooked, the furnace is rusted with peeling paint (revealed in later shots). And again, all of this might be seen as incidental set design if we had not already been provided evidence with which to measure the intentionalism of the ugliness. We have, at this point, already observed Morgan Freeman’s character in his home setting in a brief scene that exhibits nothing except for his attention to tidiness of furniture and the shared feng shui geometry of objects. The office in the scene pictured above had been, prior to this scene, in the sole possession of the same obsessively clean individual whose impressively neat apartment is among the first things we are introduced to in this film.

The non-specific world in which Seven’s story exists is a purgatory with zero dramatic weight, entirely soulless. Nothing within this world maintains its sense of utility in either a real-world or cinematic measure. It is an architecture of wretchedness filled with artifacts that possess no culture, evidence that guides to no reasonable conclusion. In this sense, the characters don’t really occupy the story as much as they are condemned to exist within it, and this reading of damnation is supported by the fact that each of our protagonists suffers a fate that is determined and communicated in early shots.

Even as Detective Somerset swears by the finality of his decision to retire, literally begging to be removed from this case, which experience informs will be longer and more arduous than any he has ever worked, his career is evidently his captor. Just after his most assured self-removal, Somerset spends the night studying in a massive, dimly lit library, basking in Bach’s Suite No. 3 in D Major, but then returns, presumably without sleep, to the police station, where the following shot displays what might be perceived as jailhouse bars, a symbolic life sentence.

And later, when Somerset explicitly encourages Mills not to chase his emotions, their conversation is interrupted by a photojournalist, who we later learn is suspect John Doe, and Mills angrily chases him away, which provides this shot of the young, doomed detective staring down a decrepit and trashed spiraling staircase into a pitch black hole, through which his troubled suspect just fled, a perfect visual synopsis for Doe’s eventual victory over Mills.

Perhaps the most brazen and tragic foreshadowing of all, however, is applied to the presentation of Mills’ wife Tracy, the film’s most hapless and undeserving victim, guilty of nothing except her devotion to her husband. In every scene in which she appears standing or sitting (that is every scene where she isn’t sleeping in bed), Tracy is framed with a sharp, horizontal line or edge hitting just below the back of her head, running through the bottom of her chin. A significant part of the lore of this film is built from the filmmakers sharing the numerous encounters in which viewers swear to have seen Tracy’s decapitated head in the film.  In regards to the the climactic exchange, this is not true. No cut or version of the film displays the contents of the infamous box. But, in a figurative, subliminal sense, viewers have witnessed Tracy decapitated by the frame several times, in every scene in which she’s active.

When Detectives Mills and Somerset escort John Doe to the final act of his thematic masterwork, he guides them through a series of power lines that once again, for the last time, loudly showcases the sort of visual anti-cinema that has defined the rest of the film. Where power lines are often among the easiest man-made structures to frame with symmetry and evenness, Fincher’s presentation offers anything but. Seven‘s power lines are harsh, jagged, violent. They appear as just a random and angry attack of black X’s cancelling out the world behind so that our hopeless heroes can meet with their devil for judgment in an empty desert limbo. Of course, this leads to the film’s one literal violent onscreen exchange, but that singular act is a pale punctuation to the more pronounced visual and existential violence that Fincher has been unleashing upon his characters and his viewers from the opening. In cinematic and storytelling terms, Seven is a film of constant violence, and to watch the film is to be its victim.

All images courtesy: New Line Cinema