book review

Seven (BFI Modern Classics)

By Deryck Swan

According to film professor Richard Dyer Seven (David Fincher, 1995) is 'a study in sin', an assessment of those characteristics that exist in the bottom half of our moral compass. It is, he argues, the paragon of the serial killer text whilst also being a revisionist entry in that cycle; the epitome of the murderous-world genre and a supremely lean remodelling of it at the same time. Released in 1999 Dyer's highly articulate and fluid treatise on director David Fincher's second film remains one of the best entries in the BFI's critical series, and arguably the most definitive reading of the film. Taking as the foundation for his argument the seven most prominent facets of the film, sin; story; structure; seriality; sound; sight and salvation, Dyer highlights not only the formal and thematic qualities of the work but also its due deference to other entries in the genre.

Beginning with sin, Dyer explores the cultural and religious ramifications of the 7 deadly sins, their relevance in Christian theology (in which the narrative of Seven ultimately resides), and the marketing of the film through this concept of 'Seven sins, Seven ways to die'. He assesses the pervasive nature of sin in the film and the manner in which its two lead characters respond to it – Somerset is sickened by the sinfulness of modern life but sees no solution, whereas Mills is eager to fight it and assert himself as the 'hero', as Western mythology would have it.

The section on 'structure' is illuminating. Dyer pinpoints the insistent clarity of Andrew Kevin Walker's screenplay and the freedom this rigid backbone permits; within the lineage of 'seven murders in seven days' Fincher is able to manipulate and alter audience preconceptions regarding the typical cop/buddy movie. The editing of the film is also thoroughly explored. Here he augments the relationship between Mills and Doe, discussing the connection that they inexorably form in the end car ride and their relative distance from Somerset, evinced through Fincher's spatial arrangements and cutting points.

With 'seriality' the book takes on a new level of prominence as Dyer provides a rigorous exploration of the serial killer phenomenon. He cites not only the heritage of the serial killer in movies, M (Fritz Lang, 1931), Maniac (William Lustig, 1980) and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (John McNaughton, 1986) all being of particular application to Seven, but also the behavioural characteristics of real killers and their distillation into fiction, and here John Doe. That Seven cashes in on the audience's awareness of serial killer infamy and cultural notoriety is no mistake, Dyer tracing a startlingly direct link between Doe and the first, famous, serial killer Jack The Ripper.

'Sound' and 'Sight' attempt to address the film's aural and visual aesthetics. Dyer's interest in the songs used for Seven is worthwhile, most attention being paid to Nine Inch Nail's Closer (1994) that opens the film and Bowie's The Heart's Filthy Lesson (1995) which closes it. However it is his examination of Howard Shore's score work and the film's sound editing combined, that proves to be most fruitful. Drawing an almost sentient relationship between the two, these sections show Dyer at his most lucid, the writing incisively covering every car horn, tire screech, bang, scratch and score use in the movie. He turns the 'aural defilement' into some sort of symphonic wonder. The visual palette is dissected just as stringently as Cinematographer Darius Khondji's involvement is detailed for its technical and creative choices: 'Panavision Primo lenses...and Kodak stocks 93 for interiors, 45 for daytime and 87 for night-time exteriors (giving especially 'rich' blacks)'.

'Salvation' closes the book and sees Dyer again asserting Seven's disparity from the generic tropes of the police procedural, reminding us that its reliance is on sin, and not crime, as the selling point. He concludes that the film simultaneously offers us completion and denies us 'comfortable' closure in one fell swoop, but that given the kind of 'shitty world' it promotes, we are only worthy of the former and not some comfortable resolution. Like Mills we are left spiritually shaken, forced to continue living after the events of the film.

The only critical observation that might be levelled against Dyer's book is one of post-modern critique. In a film of such intoxicating sensory experience does it really mean anything? Is the film preaching to us, like the killer, that we are all damned? Is it attempting to rouse us from our sinful slumber and show another way to live? Or is its effectiveness as a film experience only there to benefit and serve the story? Dyer never properly aligns himself with any of these questions but then perhaps that is the domain of another writer, or his next book.

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