Tuesday, September 22, 2015

20 Years Later, Fincher's "Se7en" is Still a Sick, Sad Masterpiece

Scene from Se7en
There was a time when the name of director David Fincher didn't mean much to people. While he had done various jobs in the 80's on franchise films for Star Wars and Indiana Jones, his only real claim to fame was shooting music videos and disturbing anti-smoking ads. In what is now a reverse career trajectory, Fincher made his cinematic debut with the conflicted Alien 3 - of which he disowned, and vowed never to make another movie. Thankfully for us, he came back a few years later and changed the crime drama with one of the most astounding, shocking, and smart stories of the 90's. 20 years later, Fincher continues to shock with films like Gone Girl, but it is his sophomore film that proved once and for all that he was an aggressive, voyeuristic force to be reckoned with.

If there was one odd trend in the 90's, it was the popularity of gruesome murder stories. Films like The Silence of the Lambs won Best Picture and films like Natural Born Killers kept the conversation alive. TV was rich with shows focusing on crime from the reality (Cops, America's Most Wanted) to sci-fi (The X-Files). More than any other decade in modern history, there hasn't been a period more bleak when it comes to successful pop culture. While it could do with the growing awareness of serial killers, it was also a shifting tide once again from the conservative views of the past to a crazy, carefree future. Even if there have always been bleak crime stories - going back to the 1940's film noir - there hasn't been a period that profited off of it more.

Then comes Fincher. He wasn't Se7en's first choice to direct, nor were Brad Pitt or Morgan Freeman as the leads. As mentioned, Fincher wasn't exactly eager to make another movie. The script was in peril of being shifted from the famous dead wife's head in the box to something less disturbing, such as Pitt's dog's head. It was through strokes of luck that the film came through the way that it did, thanks to everything aligning. Where the studios wanted to make the film a little more friendly, Pitt refused to work on it unless he got that ending. Along with keeping Kevin Spacey as John Doe (the killer) out of press materials, there were various slights of hands that made the film such an engrossing (and gross) film.

The crime story involving the seven deadly sins is only the outline for what makes the film work. A lot of it came from Fincher, who was established at this point but had yet to prove why he was a unique voice. One could study the shot compositions and understand something deeper about the story. There are those moments that characters face away from each other, or are blurred from the camera entirely. There are those misleads and slow reveals that unpack something bigger. The film is shot in a manner that is allowed to have darker sets that add a grim tone to the whole picture. With exception to the finale, Pitt's character is seen predominantly in public while it is raining. This was an accident incorporated into the plot in order to add continuity.

Fincher has gone on record several times as being a voyeuristic director. The excitement of peering into stranger's lives has fueled his cinema since. While the audience member may not be prone to pry into these subjects, Fincher takes glee in showing it to us through every last detail. Gone Girl is a trashy film about a failing romance. Fight Club is a sadistic parody of masculinity. Panic Room may be his most explicit voyeurism film as he chronicles a home invasion on a mother and daughter, wanting what's in a specific room. The reason that Fincher has remained so vital is that, beyond his technical achievements, he doesn't pull away from a scene when others would go squeamish (save for Se7en's box scene). He forces us to confront our sickest desires, and the results are all the better for it.

The film is a masterclass of everything that Fincher would promise in his later years. For starters, his stories would help to reinvent the crime genre with films like Zodiac and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. His actors would be unrelenting by nature. But most of all, he would push the format by incorporating camera styles and technological advancement in ways not meant to be praised. The opening credits are a slick look into a mix of research, violence, with a queasy remix of Nine Inch Nails playing over. Add in the dated creaks of a VHS tape, and it serves as the welcome mat to an insane asylum. It already sends the audience through implicit thoughts of what's to come before it's even understood what the title Se7en is referencing. This is the aspect of Fincher that has remained most consistent over the films, with each opening credits establishing tone effectively.

It may be easy to get Se7en stuck into all of the other crime genre films of the 90's. There were a handful that had a very strange stroke of luck of being successful. It grossed $327 internationally, a fate that likely wouldn't seem plausible in an era where the most successful "violent" films are relegated to PG-13 franchise films, bloodless and optimistic. In that way, Fincher remains an anomaly to pop culture, choosing to invest in our dark secrets and exploiting them as compelling cinema. It helped that Spacey was at the height of his career, adding this creepy role to his other credits in L.A. Confidential and American Beauty. It's a great example of a twist ending that guts the audience, surprising them without manipulating their trust. It also helps that Fincher understood camera technique, shifting to handheld cameras in times of character uneasiness. It's a miracle that this film exists at all considering how gruesome the final product is. 

While I don't consider this my favorite of Fincher's films, it does announce a proud and confident voice to cinema. More than any director that got their start as a 90's music video director, he understood the type of cinema he wanted. It wouldn't please everyone, but it would be aggressive and precise. Even in his less "violent" films like The Social Network, he proves that he is capable of surprising the audience visually. It is why, even if you don't like his stories, you can study his work and find a lot out about the evolution of cinema, likely more than more technologically prevalent directors like James Cameron. Fincher is a man who goes for the gut, letting us into strange corners of the world. We are better for it. Even then Se7en remains a film indicative of its time as well as proof that crime stories can be original, even if they all usually are solving murders.

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