Because they imbue you with a sense of shock, awe, terror, or in some cases all three, some movies stick with you long after the credits roll. Part Police procedural, part thriller, part horror movie, David Fincher’s Seven is one such film. With its star studded cast, including the always amazing Morgan Freeman, rising star Brad Pitt, hot off the successes of Interview With The Vampire and Legends of the Fall, and an intense Kevin Spacey who had, just a month earlier, blown audiences’ minds with The Usual Suspects, Seven chilled moviegoers and heated up the box office in 1995, becoming one of the year’s highest grossing films.
Fincher’s sophomore feature was a critical and box office success in 1995. It was vindication following a long run of commercials and music videos that culminated in his first feature, the oft maligned Alien 3. Great successes would follow, including Fight Club, Panic Room, and Gone Girl, but it was Seven that put Fincher firmly on the Hollywood directorial map.
So how does this modern thriller hold up all these years later? Grab some popcorn, watch the trailer, and look back with us to see WHAT’S IN THE BOX!?!
Seven (1995) Synopsis
Two detectives, a rookie and a veteran, hunt a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as his motives.
David Fincher (Fight Club, Panic Room) directed the film from a screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker. It stars Morgan Freeman (Outbreak), Brad Pitt (World War Z), Kevin Spacey (The Usual Suspects), Gwyneth Paltrow (Iron Man), and R. Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket).
Detectives Somerset (Freeman) and Mills (Pitt) hunt down a cunning, psychopathic killer (Spacey) the media calls “John Doe.” Somerset is a cool-as-ice vet on the verge of retirement who vows to stay on to solve this one last case. Mills, in contrast, is an inexperienced hothead desperately looking to make a splash on his first real Detective action. The bodies pile up and the evidence is slow in coming. Can these new partners stop John Doe before all seven deadly sins become grisly reality? The answer may shock you. It certainly shocked audiences in 1995!
Seven (1995) – Release And Reception
New Line Cinema produced and distributed Seven. It opened the weekend of September 22 – 24, 1995 in 2442 theaters, finishing atop the box office with a $13.9 million opening. The film spent 4 weeks in the Number 1 spot, eventually grossing more than $327 million against its $33 million budget. It opened ahead of Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, then held off Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, and Sylvester Stallone’s Assassins (twice) before ultimately getting bumped from the top soot by the crime comedy Get Shorty.
Reviews were mostly positive. Gene Siskel gave it 3 Stars (out of 4). He said “all of this talent is worth seeing if you can look past the gruesome details.” High praise, considering Gene was never a fan of horror or gore. Gene’s long time counterpart, Roger Ebert, gave the film 4 Stars (out of 4). It is listed as one of Ebert’s “Great Films.” He called it, “one of the darkest and most merciless films ever made in the Hollywood mainstream.” Entertainment Weekly agreed, praising the film’s “tantalizingly morbid atmosphere of unease.” It certainly has that. In spades.
Seven is certified fresh at Rotten Tomatoes with an 81% critic rating and a 95% audience score. IMDB scores it an astonishing 8.6 out of 10 with more than 1.4 million user ratings.
What’s To Like?
Morgan Freeman is phenomenal in Seven. His Somerset character dominates every scene with a calm, cool demeanor, made all the more effective by Freeman’s iconic, unmistakable voice. Kevin Spacey is suitably creepy as “John Doe,” and makes the most of his screen time. The same can be said for Paltrow who is, frankly, underused. She gives a memorable performance, to be sure, as Mills’s wife Tracy.
Brad Pitt might be the weakest link here, but it’s hard to tell if his erratic, uneven performance can be attributed to bad acting, or if he’s just really hard selling his high strung Mills character. It’s consistent, so we’ll give Brad the benefit of the doubt. To be fair, he really drives home the anguish in the film’s final scene. It’s heartbreaking. The rest of the cast is ably rounded out by screen veterans like R. Lee Ermey and John C. McGinley. It’s truly a top notch ensemble.
This is a gritty film, in the best possible way. The cinematography, the production design, and the direction, in particular, really sell the darkness presented here. Its modern setting feels steeped in the noir aesthetic of the 40s and 50s. It’s immersive, almost to the point of being overwhelming, and it all blends together seamlessly with composer Howard Shore’s haunting score to produce an unforgettably dark atmosphere. Shore, who scored The Silence of the Lambs four years prior, would go on to receive four Academy Award nominations and six Golden Globe nominations for his work on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Shore’s work here is particularly inspired.
What’s Not To Like?
It’s hard to find much fault here. One thing I did find interesting upon re-watch is how technologically challenged it is. I think of Seven as a modern film, and it is, but because it was filmed in 1995, you’re dealing with the modern world you know, that’s still somehow devoid of cell phones, GPS, and Internet. While it makes the detective work seem all the more impressive, it was jarring to go back and watch characters deal with land lines, library cards, and banker’s boxes. It seems like only yesterday I saw this in theaters. It couldn’t possibly be 25 years ago! That disconnect doesn’t ultimately take away from what is, by all accounts, a fantastic film. But be warned: if it’s been a few years since you’ve seen it, you’re definitely going to notice this when you re-watch.
If you somehow haven’t seen Seven yet, there are spoilers ahead. Beware!
“What’s In The Box?“
It’s impossible to talk about Seven and its impact on cinema without talking about the final scene. John Doe turns himself in and agrees to take Somerset and Mills to his final victims. They all journey out into the desert, where a delivery van drops off a box for the detectives. Somerset breaks out a switchblade (a nice touch) and opens the box, recoiling in horror. A good distance from the van, the killer confesses to Mills he was jealous of the Detective, his wife, and their soon to be expanding family. That was his sin: envy.
Somerset races back to his partner’s side, where Pitt’s character famously breaks down, demanding to know “What’s in the box?” Though we don’t actually see it, we come to find out it’s his wife Tracy’s head. John Doe had claimed another victim. Two, actually. Tracy was pregnant and hadn’t told Mills. In the ultimate gut punch, her killer deliver the news. When Mills finally makes the pregnancy connection, it pushes him over the edge, and he kills John Doe on the spot. His final sin? Wrath. The killer’s grand design is complete.
Is there a better, more shocking downer ending than this in the last 25 years? I’m hard pressed to think of one. It’s simply masterful.
Trivia From IMDB
- Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Harrison Ford, and Gene Hackman were all considered for, or offered the Somerset role before it went to Morgan Freeman.
- Denzel Washington and Sylvester Stallone both turned down the Mills role. Both later claimed they regretted the decision. Kevin Costner and Nicolas Cage were also considered.
- Val Kilmer turned down the John Doe role and R. Lee Ermey auditioned before it went to Kevin Spacey. Ermey wound up playing the Police Captain instead.
- Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker has a cameo as the film’s first corpse.
- Gwyneth Paltrow’s severed head is never shown, but a prop was built that was later used in the movie Contagion (2011).
- The city is never identified, though much of the film was shot in Los Angeles, and “New York” is implied in a variety of ways. The Police badges simply say “Metropolitan.”
- The end credits run in reverse, from top to bottom, rather than the traditional bottom to top.
Seven (1995) – Final Thoughts
You can buy Seven on Blu-ray on Amazon. The release features multiple commentaries, alternate endings, and extended scenes. The DVD release appears to be out of print, but you can still find it used, cheaply on Amazon or eBay. If digital’s your thing, you can rent or buy the film through all the major outlets, including Amazon, VUDU, iTunes. It’s not currently available on Netflix or Hulu. Collectors may be interested in the VHS and LaserDisc releases. Have fun hunting those down!
To recap, David Fincher’s Seven is a classic, modern thriller. I still can’t believe it’s been 25 years, but I was happy to discover it’s just as enjoyable now as it was back in 1995. Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt make an effective on screen duo, and Kevin Spacey’s John Doe is a mainstay on many a “Top Big Screen Villains” list. Seven‘s box office success, haunting atmosphere, and shocking finale inspired a whole new generation of films and will undoubtedly continue to inspire filmmakers for generations to come.
What are your thoughts on the film? Will you revisit it, as we did, to celebrate the 25th anniversary? Tell us in the comments!