Does Se7en qualify as a great movie?
The question has been rattling around in my head since I wrote this post last month detailing the hidden formula behind David Fincher's horror landmark. I didn't used to think so. Opening amid a wave of Silence of the Lambs imitators in late '95 (including the aptly named Copycat) Fincher's film stood out from the pack as the best, most well-crafted one of the bunch, but that was about it. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the Hell out of the movie, but I still kept it in its - ahem - box. It was an effective thriller, nothing more.
For one thing the central conceit of a killing for each of the seven deadly sins smacked of high concept story pitching, too gimmicky to be taken seriously. Were we supposed to believe that John Doe went through all those mad clues and contortions, and they just so happened to be the perfect hook for a big budget Hollywood movie? It was great style to be sure, but style in the service of what exactly?
Yet all these years later, after the other mad killer movies have faded from memory Se7en still lingers. The test of time has proven that those elements which at first felt like contrivances, in the hands of Fincher, the exceptional cast, and especially the brilliant, Oscar nominated cinematographer Darius Khondji, turn out to be something else entirely. Se7en is operatic in its scope, operating above the authentic level of the other police procedurals, and it's on that level the film succeeds wildly.
Think about it. The film is intentionally non-committal about it's location and time period, so that its urban hellscape can't be limited by the mundane particulars of reality. They have modern technologies but the costume and set decoration deliberately evoke the film noirs of the forties. The story particulars are far too outrageous to be remotely believable. (What if no one ever thought to check behind the painting for invisible messages - to name but one of a thousand possible but totally unimportant questions) John Doe's apartment is not so much a place someone could conceivably live, but is rather the lair of the ultimate movie psychopath, an orgy of art direction with enough creepy props to supply the crazed killers of a dozen other movies (not to mention being roughly four times too big to be in that rundown building. How many rooms are in that place?) Buffalo Bill's basement had its artsy touches too, but it was first and foremost the place a real serial killer like Bill would live, namely, a shit-hole.
But so what? Se7en worms its way so far into our subconscious because it untethers itself from the concerns of reality and plunges its heroes headlong into the depths of the inferno. Look at that shot above. That's not a shot that has any place in a realistic cop movie. That shot is operating on a biblical scale, setting a stage large enough to make room for the presence of pure evil and taking the final toll only in the sad eyes and defeated voice of Morgan Freeman.
So is Se7en a great movie? Yes. It is.