Hell On Earth: Darkness and Light in Se7en (Fincher, 1995)

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Comparing the opening and ending scenes in David Fincher’s Se7en goes a long way toward understanding the film’s devastating combination of dark spaces, drowning ambient sound, and urban decay. Before Kyle Cooper’s fragmented credit sequence, Fincher introduces Det. William Sommerset (Morgan Freeman) preparing for another day in his cramped, dimly lit apartment. Sommerset washes dishes, carefully puts on a tie, lays out his professional essentials (badge, knife, wallet, pen), puts on his coat only before picking off a piece of lint, then calmly turns off a lamp. These actions are juxtaposed with continuous, droning noise from the city beyond, immediately establishing the space as an expanding, shifting, and uneasy environment. Fincher then cuts to a medium shot of a body laying face down in a pool of dark blood, the textures of the space flickering off sharp light consumed by overwhelming darkness. Another detective explains the “crime of passion” just committed, then Sommerset replies, “Yeah just look at all that passion on the wall.” Cynical professionalism incarnate. The rest of the film pits Sommerset’s numbness against Det. Mills’ (Brad Pitt) naive eagerness and this clash of ideologies builds to a staggering conclusion.

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Passion and vengeance define the ending of Se7en as well, but Fincher stages the dramatic daylight finale in the middle of nowhere, an endless prairie of dead grass framed by distant mountains and dissected by dense telephone towers and wires. Instead of close-ups, Fincher’s favored shot throughout the film, wide angle images dominate, flooded with natural light and kinetic movement, often in the form of POV shots from the circling SWAT helicopter. Since Fincher’s goal is maximum tension and suspense, these shots quiver, jolt, and crush the camera’s eye-line. The sound design combines disjointed bursts of ambient noise with Howard Shore’s menacing requiem. In contrast to the dank and foul interiors of the film’s urban sprawl, these moments are even more horrific because their is no escape, no unsolved anomaly, no crazy uncertainty to distance the characters from the deadly reality. Even though light finally reveals the surface of John Doe’s plan, so much remains unexplained.

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So in the end, light and dark display different variations of hell on earth, completing John Doe’s “masterpiece” and the film’s narrative arc in a very unsettling way. Instinct destroys rational thought, and Mills inevitably succumbs to his own vision of heroism. Sommerset is left in limbo, watching his partner descend into the realm of madness, while John Doe gets off scot free with a bullet to the head. In the world of Se7en, we wait for those around us to get picked off by the evils of the earth, all the while selfishly hoping we aren’t next. The rain will never end, and so we helplessly watch in horror.

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