Movies To See Before You Die: Se7en

10 May
2011

“What I have done is going to be puzzled over and studied and followed… forever.”

Well, it will certainly be remembered.

In 1995, sophomore feature-film director David Fincher and fledgling screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker unleashed Se7en upon an unsuspecting world, and movie thrillers have never been the same since. Se7en is, by turns, devastating and shocking, and populated by powerhouse performances and bravura directing. It’s ranked #18 on Flickchart’s list of the Best Movies of All Time, #4 among thrillers, #6 on my personal chart, and it features the single best-written ending I have ever seen. If, somehow, you have not seen this movie, and this ending has not been spoiled for you (it will not be here), avoid any discussions of Se7en you may come across until you can see it. Because Se7en is a Movie to See Before You Die… provided, at least, you have the stomach for it.

Se7en vs. the Serial Killer

“Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention.”

In the movies, serial killers are a dime a dozen. What makes the memorable ones stand out? For some, just their look is iconic: Jason‘s hockey mask, Freddy Krueger‘s claws, Michael Myers‘ inside-out William Shatner mask. The Ghostface killer in the Scream franchise is memorable for his mask, for taking his cues from slasher movies, and for the fact that so many people have taken up his mantle. Jigsaw is famous for his puppet, and for the gruesome traps he sets for his victims. Hannibal Lecter is famous for his educated mind… well, and the fact that he eats people.

The killer in Se7en outdoes them all, as far as I’m concerned. Truly terrifying, he is the epitome of evil. Yet, we never see him kill anyone on screen. Writer Andrew Kevin Walker and director David Fincher know that what they do not show can be far more terrifying than what they do, and, indeed, 90% of the violence in Se7en occurs off-screen. Several times, we are shown the grisly aftermath of a murder, and yet, the most effectively scary killings are the ones for which we are not actually shown anything.

Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman play the detectives on the killer’s trail, trying to stop him before he completes his set of seven murders. The two leads are fantastic as the grizzled veteran in his last days on the job and the young hotshot training to take his place. In a strange way, Freeman and Pitt, as Detectives Somerset and Mills, almost make the perfect buddy cop duo, not unlike Riggs and Murtaugh…though the Lethal Weapon team never had to face a threat like the killer in Se7en.

The murderer in Se7en is obsessed with punishing people for committing the Seven Deadly Sins: Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Pride, Lust, Envy and Wrath. Yet, most of his murders he does not quite commit directly. In not insignificant ways, he can be seen as a major influence on Jigsaw, from the Saw franchise, for each of his murders exists as some elaborate themed trapped to ensnare one of the “sinners”. But while Saw goes over the top in its depiction of the macabre and the gross, Se7en is far more subtle. It gets under your skin, and is far more disturbing as a result. It’s almost a shame that part of Se7en‘s legacy might be a contribution to the current wave of “torture porn”, because Se7en is far, far more psychological than outright disgusting.

Se7en vs. David Fincher

“Honestly, have you ever seen anything like this?”


David Fincher is currently riding high in Hollywood, with his last two films garnering Oscar nominations for both Best Picture and Best Director. And while everyone buzzes about The Social Network, it looks as though he’s aiming to continue the trend, with his next film being a remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. But while I couldn’t be happier for him, as Fincher woos the Hollywood elite, I can’t help thinking that this isn’t my David Fincher anymore.

My David Fincher lifted a big middle finger to studio interference when he disowned Alien³ before it was completed. My David Fincher defied any genre when he made Fight Club, and my David Fincher completely dominated a genre when he made Se7en. The shift occurred, I think, with Zodiac; that seems to be when Fincher started making films that were more bait for critics (not that Se7en and Fight Club received bad reviews). While I freely admit that I have not seen Fincher’s latest films (I just picked up a copy of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that I haven’t watched yet, and The Social Network remains high on my “Want to See” list) and I probably don’t know what I’m talking about, it still seems to me that these later films are not Fincher’s legacy. After the Social Network hype dies down, I still think that David Fincher will forever remain the guy who made Se7en and Fight Club.

While I feel that Fight Club is also a must-see movie, to my mind, Se7en is Fincher’s masterpiece. Fight Club is a movie that revels in its cleverness, too hip and too cool to play with the other kids. I love it, but Se7en, meanwhile, seems effortless in its brilliance. And while a great deal of the credit must go to the script, one can’t discount Fincher’s direction. The film literally oozes menace, every frame saturated with grime. The viewer is ripped from his or her comfort zone from the very beginning, and never allowed to remain at ease, even during scenes when the main characters are attempting to enjoy a more lighthearted moment. Se7en isn’t exactly bursting with comic relief, but the specter of the killer permeates every second, a true testament to Fincher’s talent. Here, he has created a world that must be experienced, but it’s not for the timid.

Se7en vs. Andrew Kevin Walker

“He’s a nut-bug! Just because the f—er’s got a library card, doesn’t make him Yoda!”


Se7en is an absolutely brilliant work for a first-time screenwriter. Unfortunately, Andrew Kevin Walker’s subsequent credits don’t really live up to it. The next features produced from his scripts were Joel Schumacher‘s 8MM and Tim Burton‘s Sleepy Hollow; the former smacks of a desperate and ill-advised attempt out-do the shocks in Se7en, while the latter is a middling-to-okay retelling of the tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman. More recently, Walker had his hand in what many consider to be the de-fanging of The Wolfman.

But if any of these films give you pause in checking out Se7en, they shouldn’t; Se7en is that good. It’s a bit of a shame that Andrew Kevin Walker will apparently never attain the same heights, but the creation of a truly diabolical villain and a literally perfect third act is not a bad legacy to leave behind.

Se7en vs. the Title

“You will accept my apology, won’t you? I feel like saying more, but I don’t want to ruin the surprise.”


For good or ill, part of Se7en‘s legacy is the grammatically-confused title. Turning the ‘V’ on its side to create a ’7′ actually really works for this particular film, adding to the unease (especially appearing, as it does, during a brilliantly twisted opening credits sequence). But then, suddenly, substituting similarly-shaped numerals for letters in movie titles became the disturbingly “cool” thing to do. Every film from Thir13en Ghosts to the recent Scream 4 (posters advertising it as “Scre4m”) has jumped on the bandwagon; all have screamed “rip-off”, and none have achieved the same effect.

Watch the opening title sequence of Se7en >

Se7en vs. the Twist Ending

“This isn’t going to have a happy ending.”


Soylent Green is people. The psychiatrist is dead. Darth Vader is Luke’s father. Rosebud is the man’s sled. None of these twist endings have anything on Se7en. It is one of those twist endings whose disclosure to the uninitiated should be a criminal act. At the time of the film’s release, the identity of the actor playing the killer was kept a secret. If you have not seen it, but know who this actor is, let me assure you, he’s perfectly cast. If you don’t know, you’re in for a treat.

Never before or since have I witnessed another film’s ending that I did not see coming, and yet seemed so absolutely right for the film that preceded it. As such, I consider Se7en to have the most “perfect” movie ending I have ever seen. It fits the movie like a glove, and leaves the viewer dumbfounded at the brilliance of it. Unlike a lot of third act “twists” that seem to come out of nowhere, the ending of Se7en is just the logical conclusion to the proceedings, and it is simultaneously brilliant and devastating.

Am I building it up too much?

Se7en vs. My Flickchart

“Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”


Se7en is currently lodged at #6 on my personal Flickchart, between Christopher Nolan‘s The Prestige and Steven Spielberg‘s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The Prestige is another film with a clever script and a great ending twist, but unlike Se7en, I didn’t grow to love it until the second viewing, making me wonder if it shouldn’t be lower. Indiana Jones, meanwhile, is just a decidedly fun romp. “Fun” isn’t a word that can really be used to describe Se7en, making me wonder if Indy shouldn’t be higher. Regardless, this is a group of all-time favorite films in constant debate.

I’ve never really considered Se7en to be a “horror” film, but as many horrifying things happen in it, I suppose it would qualify. This would make it my all-time favorite horror movie (ahead of Ridley Scott‘s Alien and Frank Darabont‘s The Mist). It’s certainly my favorite film about a serial killer. I’m definitely glad I discovered the film unspoiled, in my pre-Internet days. Having no foreknowledge about the movie allowed it to catch me completely unawares, grab me by the throat, and pull the rug from under me.

Se7en is the cream of the crop in the police detective sub-genre. If, somehow, you’ve managed to avoid spoilers for it thus far, don’t let anybody ruin it for you. Because Se7en is definitely a Movie To See Before You Die. Just don’t say you haven’t been warned.

Other Movies To See Before You Die:

  • Anonymous

    I think the reason that JON DOE is so scary is because he is a serial killer in the true sense of the word. A lot of the people you listed – Krueger, Vorhees, Ghostface, etc – are more slasher villains and thus just not as “real world” terrifying.

    Your point about Fincher’s more recent films is an interesting one, although you might have been able to make it more thoroughly had you seen BENJAMIN BUTTON and THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Both are them are very good (in fact I think the latter is a near masterpiece), but they do sort of lack the gritty rebelliousness of his earlier works…they feel more fine tuned, which can be both a good and a bad thing.

    Great piece overall, really made me want to revisit this film. On a side note, have you seen the [the films of] video series? They’re montages that highlight the career of particular directors – so far the creator has done Sofia Coppola, Danny Boyle, David Fincher and Wes Anderson. The Fincher one is particularly impressive, and really makes you realize what a masterful and meticulous filmmaker his is. Check it out: http://www.vimeo.com/21482856?ab

    • http://www.flickchart.com/johnmason Nigel Druitt

       Tom: You’re absolutely right about those slasher villains. In fact, the scariest character that I can think of who approaches Doe is, in fact, Hannibal Lecter, with whom Doe shares a lot of similarities (at least in looks and mannerisms).

      And you’re absolutely right about me not seeing Ben Button and The Social Network, so I tried to acknowledge that. In fact, that’s why I turned this into a Movie To See Before You Die post about Se7en; I was originally trying to piece together a Directors Who Dominate post about Fincher, and realized I was not qualified.

      Thanks for sharing that video; really cool!

  • Anonymous

    I think the reason that JON DOE is so scary is because he is a serial killer in the true sense of the word. A lot of the people you listed – Krueger, Vorhees, Ghostface, etc – are more slasher villains and thus just not as “real world” terrifying.

    Your point about Fincher’s more recent films is an interesting one, although you might have been able to make it more thoroughly had you seen BENJAMIN BUTTON and THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Both are them are very good (in fact I think the latter is a near masterpiece), but they do sort of lack the gritty rebelliousness of his earlier works…they feel more fine tuned, which can be both a good and a bad thing.

    Great piece overall, really made me want to revisit this film. On a side note, have you seen the [the films of] video series? They’re montages that highlight the career of particular directors – so far the creator has done Sofia Coppola, Danny Boyle, David Fincher and Wes Anderson. The Fincher one is particularly impressive, and really makes you realize what a masterful and meticulous filmmaker his is. Check it out: http://www.vimeo.com/21482856?ab

    • http://www.flickchart.com/johnmason Nigel Druitt

       Tom: You’re absolutely right about those slasher villains. In fact, the scariest character that I can think of who approaches Doe is, in fact, Hannibal Lecter, with whom Doe shares a lot of similarities (at least in looks and mannerisms).

      And you’re absolutely right about me not seeing Ben Button and The Social Network, so I tried to acknowledge that. In fact, that’s why I turned this into a Movie To See Before You Die post about Se7en; I was originally trying to piece together a Directors Who Dominate post about Fincher, and realized I was not qualified.

      Thanks for sharing that video; really cool!

  • Hannibal

    I am going to start with one of your only faults.  There is no way that JOHN DOE is more “savage or terrifying”(Silence of the Lambs) than the master himself, Hannibal Lecter.  Otherwise this was a good webpage.  I myself loved the entire movie until the end.  I thought the plot and the way the murders were devised were very original.  My problem was the ending.  Pride, Greed, Gluttony, Sloth, Lust, and Envy all died but Wrath survived.  The rest got there punishment in death for there “crimes” and Wrath survives.  It ruined the whole movie.  Somehow Wrath should have died at that same moment.

    • http://www.flickchart.com/johnmason Nigel Druitt

      Your point is taken about Lecter. Indeed, The Silence of the Lambs scared the bejeezus out of me; it’s just a matter of opinion.

      Meanwhile…the ending. “Wrath” doesn’t survive. Mills’ wife is the Wrath murder. Doe himself is Envy, killed by Mills after Tracy is murdered. There is, indeed, a body count of seven in the movie. (As I recall; they find the Sloth victim alive, but he finally succumbs, right…?)

      And, ultimately, what happens does far more damage to Mills than him being killed would, doesn’t it?

    • http://www.flickchart.com/johnmason Nigel Druitt

      On reflection, I’ve gotten this a little confused. Tracy is the “Envy” death; Doe is the “Wrath” death. But these two are different from the others. The first five murders were John Doe punishing the sinner; the last two are victims of the sinner. Doe himself commits the “Envy” sin, and kills Tracy. By killing Doe, Mills “becomes” Wrath.

  • Stillcrows

    The scene that irked me was the one where Freeman’s character is in the Library.  First, the whole entry scene was cliche and forced, taking me right out of the mood the rest of the film created.  Second, it all came too easy (his aha moment) and simplistic, especially when translating “grossly speculative” said factoids to Pit’s character.  The other scene is with Freeman and Paltrow in the diner – lame, just outright lame - poor dialouge, poor delivery, could have and should have been cut.  Those were the two places the film left me dry and back in the here and now, which is the exact opposite reason why I watch movies.