I’ve mentioned before my love of mystery and detective stories, and “Se7en” is one of the best of its kind. Yet, after seeing it during its theatrical release in 1995, the ending so disturbed me I had no desire ever to watch it again. Time heals all wounds, I suppose, and I was able to view and enjoy it with fresh eyes when it arrived in a fresh new DVD transfer some years ago. Now, we get the movie in a high-definition Blu-ray Book edition, looking and sounding better than ever. But I would caution any viewer in advance that the film, like others from director David Fincher (“Fight Club,” “Zodiac”), explores unsavory territory and ends in a most unsettling manner. Be forewarned.
Although Brad Pitt gets top billing, the film really belongs to Morgan Freeman, who proves once more why he is one of Hollywood’s finest actors. He is brilliant as the aging New York City police detective, Lt. William Somerset, who is seven days from retirement when he stumbles onto a series of grisly serial killings. Somerset is reluctant to work the investigation; he wants nothing more than to retire to the quiet of the country. But he is at heart a policeman, and the lure of one last big case is irresistible. His new partner is a young up-and-comer named David Mills (Pitt), a person completely opposite the older man. Whereas Somerset is single, quiet, reserved, studious, contemplative, fastidious, and probably lonely, Mills has a wife, and he’s macho, hot-tempered, anxious, and impetuous. Mills has been with the force five years but thinks he knows more than Somerset, who’s been doing police work for thirty-four year. The younger detective is more emotionally open and more apt to break rules than his conservative partner. The older detective is more calculating, more the detached observer. The story is as much about their relationship and their individual personalities as it is about the murders they investigate.
Now, about those murders. The detectives initially discover an obese man dead from overeating. When they see his hands and feet tied, with bruises from the end of a gun pressed to his forehead, they conclude that somebody forced him to eat himself to death. However, it isn’t until they find the second victim that they notice a pattern. The second guy is a wealthy defense attorney they find bled to death, with a pound of flesh extracted from his body. Somerset sees it first. The victims are being murdered according to the medieval “Seven Deadly Sins”: gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, pride, lust, and envy. Mention of the sins dates back probably as early as the sixth century, but Saint Thomas Aquinas made them famous in his thirteenth-century manuscript “Summa Theologica.” A century later, Dante Alighieri celebrated them again in his “Divine Comedy” and still later by Geoffrey Chaucer in his “Canterbury Tales.” The third casualty falls victim to sloth; the detectives find him tied to a bed, apparently kept alive and tormented for a full year. And so on.
Indulging in a clever bit of character exposition, the story has the two detectives attack the mystery of the killings in different ways. Somerset goes to the public library and does his homework by checking out Aquinas, Dante, and Chaucer. Mills, on the other hand, researches the crime by ordering up copies of “Cliff’s Notes.” Thankfully, by the way, we never actually see the murders. The victims are already dead when we get to them, which doesn’t make the film any the less gruesome for forcing us to use our imagination.
Among the excellent supporting cast are Gwyneth Paltrow as David’s long-suffering wife; R. Lee Ermey as a police captain; Kevin Spacey as one of several murder suspects; and Richard Roundtree and John C. McGinley thrown in for good measure. All of the actors do well in their roles, but they pale beside the granite substance of Freeman’s portrayal. We come to respect his character for the perseverance he displays; we admire him for the intelligence and dedication he demonstrates; yet we pity him, too, for the solitary condition he has imposed upon himself. He is like an insightful yet resigned poet, able to see and comment on the defects of human behavior without ever fully able to remedy them.
In addition to his successful delineation of character in the film, director Fincher uses a dark, evocative atmosphere to capture superbly the essence of the story he’s telling. As the murderer leads the policemen a merry chase, purposely leaving clues for them to follow, either daring them to find him or wanting them to catch him, he draws them deeper into the dark bowels of the city, much as Dante’s sightseers in “The Divine Comedy” are lead ever lower into the depths of hell.
To be sure, Fincher stretches credibility on more than a few occasions. One doubts, for instance, that any murderer could be as precise or as patient as this madman is; that any metropolis, even New York, could possibly be as ugly as this one; or that any city could have as many crimes committed on every street corner at every moment as are depicted here. But as good figurative storytelling, “Se7en” comes as close to perfection as possible, with its biggest exception being that ending I mentioned–unnerving and disquieting, intellectually and emotionally. Still, it may be what people remember most.
According to one of the accompanying featurettes, Fincher went back and fiddled with the video for home theater, and the New Line engineers use a VC-1 codec and a dual-layer BD50 to reproduce it. Nevertheless, this is not to suggest the current picture quality is perfect. I admired its sharp gradations of contrast, its precise imaging, and its excellent skin tones. The picture looks best in close-ups, but it is less distinct in distance shots. Fincher intentionally created a dull, dark look, with the appearance of natural lighting the order of the day for a dingy, dirty, dusky city. Accordingly, definition varies from ultra sharp to downright soft.
New Line offer the soundtrack in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, which is quite precise in all the channels, with excellent deep bass. Again, the engineers have specially processed the sound for home reproduction so it appears more extended at the high end, more natural in the midrange, and not so prominent in the lower treble. The audio track provides wide dynamics and well-distributed ambient noises among the various speakers. Often, though, aural effects overshadow the voices. Turn up the volume enough to hear what people are saying clearly and things like rain and peripheral noise become too loud. This was, I’m sure, deliberate on Fincher’s part to create a realistic environment for the characters, but it doesn’t make it any easier trying to follow the plot. Likewise for Howard Shore’s musical score, which does a fine job underlining the movie’s noir tone but sometimes overpowers the dialogue.
The Blu-ray edition contains four audio commentaries. These commentaries feature (1) director David Fincher and actors Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman; (2) host Richard Dyer with Fincher, screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, editor Richard Francis-Bruce, and New Line President of Production Michael De Luca; (3) Dyer, Fincher, Francis-Bruce, director of photography Darious Khondji, and production designer Arthur Max; and (4) Dyer, Fincher, composer Howard Shore, and sound designer Ren Klyce. Following these are brief segments on “Production Design” and John Doe’s “Notebooks,” and then several stills galleries.
Next, we get an exploration of the opening title sequence; a series of deleted scenes; an alternate ending sequence and storyboards of an “un-shot” ending”; and segments on “Mastering for Home Theater,” covering audio mastering, video mastering, and color correction, with options to compare before and after scenes.
The extras conclude with a theatrical trailer; thirty-seven scene selections; English, German, Portuguese, Spanish, and other spoken languages; Portuguese, Spanish, Turkish, and other subtitles; and English and German captions for the hearing impaired. The Blu-ray disc itself comes housed in the back of an attractive Blu-ray Book, containing about thirty-six pages of text and pictures.
With subject matter reminiscent of “Silence of the Lambs,” the film “Se7en” is a noir murder mystery that plays in part like a psychological drama and in part like a horror movie. There is even a not-so-subtle allusion to “Silence of the Lambs” in its reference to “Wild Bill’s Leather Shop.” Close enough. The dark style of “Se7en” is also reminiscent of Fincher’s later film, “Fight Club,” but it’s better than “Fight Club” for keeping its focus and not trying to go in different directions at once.
Remember, though, that one needs a strong stomach and an open mind in viewing “Se7en.” The MPAA rated the film R for its blood, gore, profanity, and unwholesome situations. The film’s rewards lie in its characterizations, thought, atmosphere, action, mystery, and suspense. Seems a fair trade.