“Ernest Hemingway once wrote, “The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.” I agree with the second part”
Dir: David Fincher
New Line Cinema, 1995, USA
Starring: Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Spacey
A magic trick, in its traditional form, contains three very separate but inherently linked components. Firstly, ‘the pledge’ – the audience is shown an object, a figure or an item and the magician requests that the spectator confirms its normality, grounding it firmly in reality and comprehension. Following this comes ‘the turn’, the transition of this object from normal to extraordinary by way of the trick. Finally ‘the prestige’ restores balance and order by returning the object to a perceivable state, and a recognisable position in the universe. The idea that these acts work together and in synchronicity reveals itself when the trick is completed, each part adds significant meaning and interpretation to its neighbouring sections – a domino effect that begins once the operator of the trick concludes the spectacle. After the return of the object (the prestige), the viewer questions the process of the preceding ‘turn’, and becomes consumed by the lack of logic or coherence. Similarly, after the turn, when the viewer then assesses the pledge, they must evaluate their own thoughts regarding the initial object, its authenticity, and the reliability of the trickster. The dominoes topple and each portion of the trick conceals the next until the turn is explained, the pledge’s flaw revealed, or the intricacies of the prestige unravelled.
Most films containing a strong twist operate within this structure – a character, concept or object suddenly being removed from a state of convention and expectation, before being subsequently returned so that the audience may assess the resulting consequences. Through this structure, the audience must retrace their steps, and the acts of the trick, in order to fully understand and grasp the complexities of the turn, how it was accomplished, and the state of the new equilibrium that is created. David Fincher’s Se7en (1995) is a film defined by its twist, building an entire narrative around a single moment of horrific prestige, following an excruciatingly slow burning turn, to craft a caustic and acerbic illusion of modern life.
Twenty years later and Se7en still harbours the capacity to shock, disturb and compel within its twist. However, now that the substance of the ending has become common knowledge, undergone numerous parodies and entered the upper echelons of unexpected horror film climaxes, it is the material of the pledge, and its masterful set up, where we now find content to examine. Contained in Fincher’s, unnamed, city of eternal rain is a savage encapsulation of the evils of man. Regardless of how effective, heinous or monstrous its final act is,Se7en remains one of the most radical and distressing explorations of American life in the pre 9/11 filmic landscape.
Themes of religious disillusionment, and the relentless burden of a deity in a seemingly godless world, are the driving forces behind the psychological detective drama. However, the real horror of Se7en is contained in its fear of, and apprehension towards, the unknown. Kevin Spacey’s chilling antagonist John Doe embodies this notion, able to successfully obscure his true identity and consistently evade the detection of modern technologies and methods. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman’s detectives are unable to capture him despite the advanced forenisic instruments at their disposal. Their dependence on, and inhabitance of, modern living proves eventually to be their downfall.
Se7en thrives on the unseen and the unexplained. We as an audience are never given a full exploration of the motives, compulsions or history of the beast that we are shown, though this arguably makes his plan all the more hideous. Fincher, and writer, Andrew Kevin Walker, chose to leave John Doe’s as an undefined system of beliefs and reasoning, one that could manifest itself in any form, within any figure, if given the correct environment to incubate. The film is concurrently a dissection of the wave of materialism, vanity and greed prevalent in the economic bubble of the 1990’s, and a warning of what was to come if we continued to subscribe to these values. Se7en was a foreshadowing of the extremities that some would go to in order to refuse this code of existence in the name of personal religion and individual faith. Perhaps the film could be considered a spiritual companion piece to Fincher’s 1999 critique of consumerism, Fight Club, in the sense that both serve to highlight the dangers of a way of life that rejects the basic guidelines of morality. Where Fight Club focused its attack at corporations, big business and economic vanity, Se7en widened its scope to address the larger, universal issue – a lack of core ethics and the rejection of the integral values of life.
‘The turn’ in Se7en smothers the entire narrative leading up to the delivery of the box to Detective Mills. The barbed and abrasive atmosphere that Fincher creates is a constant warning of the evil that is to come, but the viewer is often so engrossed in the complexities of the case that the sleight of hand involved in the big reveal can operate behind the guise of the procedural drama preceding it. When Mills asks Somerset “Have you ever seen anything like this” halfway through the film he confirms this notion, removing any semblance of the ordinary from the scenario, its protagonists beginning their descent into the prestige and the eventual horrific revelation, the transition from normality to extraordinary already well underway.
In the context of Se7en, Fincher was a magician at the height of his powers. Through the careful construction of the aforementioned system of the trick, he was able to craft a turn and a prestige that would impact its viewers at terminal velocity, a twist that would operate simultaneously as a perfect climax to the narrative, and a hard hitting exposé of modern values. Within this structure, Fincher is able to both express deep seated worries concerning the calibration of humanity’s moral compass, and deliver them in a way that will remain in the minds of the viewer decades after its conclusion. Se7en is the optimal trick, and since a good magician never reveals such things, Fincher never actually showed us what was in Pandora’s Box.
- Kristofer Thomas