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In an early scene of David Fincher’s Se7en, an aging detective (played by Morgan Freeman) lies face-up on his bed while a cacophony of wrongdoing has its way outside in the street.  The detective, William Somerset, reaches over to his bedside table and turns on the metronome placed there.  Slowly, as the metronome ticks, a tentative, fragile calmness settles in the scene.  A constant beat versus anarchic howls.  In Se7en, as with so many first-rate noirs, the tension between the human need to believe in a fundamental moral order and the unwieldy pervasiveness of evil is central and palpable in every moment of the film.

Se7en begins with a crime both egregiously sickening yet unsettlingly ordinary given the darkly malevolent world that is depicted.  An obese man has been forced to eat himself to death.  To Somerset’s partner, Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt in an impressively naïve yet angry performance), this crime initially seems like another run-of-the-mill act of sadism.  But Somerset senses that the murder is the beginning of something more evil and more pre-meditated than he has witnessed in his lifetime of police work.  The word GLUTTONY written on the wall behind the late fat man’s refrigerator only makes him more queasily certain of his hunch.  As the film progresses, an unmatched serial killer’s master plan reveals itself in gut-wrenching turns: a series of victims are selected because they are guilty of one of the seven deadly sins, and then each is brutally tortured and murdered in accordance with the sin that he or she has committed.

Fincher’s vision of the morally decrepit world of Se7en is thematically rich with polar extremities.  Somerset and Mills are foils of one another at a very basic level; Somerset is old, patient, perceptive, and irrevocably tainted.  He is also black.  Mills, white and blond, is young, vigorously passionate, and hopelessly impatient.  Where Somerset sees a world lacking a moral anchor and ripe with regular evil, Mills sees a fundamentally good world in which a psychotic serial killer is the exception.  Somewhere in between these two men (visually and thematically) is the cityscape of Se7en—drab, grey and brown, at once subtly and explicitly violent, and menacing yet ambiguous.

This cityscape is never given a name.  We as viewers know that the metropolis is densely vertical and crawling with perverse criminality.  Detective Mills’ wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), mentions that “things were so different upstate.”  A newspaper cries in huge font that “MURDER HAS A NEW UPTOWN ADDRESS.”  David and Tracy exchange looks mixed with desperation, embarrassment, and hard-to-admit amusement when a subway rumbles by their recently purchased, otherwise tranquil apartment.  Yet despite these evocations of New York, there is a certain pointedness in the film never to name the wretched, loathsome city.  The city is decidedly not New York, because, as the final sequence reveals, a desolate badlands expanse is only a couple of hours’ drive away.  Rather than be locationally specific, Se7en lets us visit godforsaken yet unremarkable corners of a dark place that is at once no place and every place.

The presence of the written word throughout the film is interesting to consider.  With each murder, the relevant deadly sin is scrawled in capital letters near the victim’s body. These words, which have a place of prominence in some of the most disturbingly indelible images in the film, serve not only as grim reminders of the brutally calculated killings that have taken place but also as literal signposts of the ubiquity of moral ugliness in Se7en.  Written words are also featured in an exceptionally beautiful montage in the first half of the film, in which Somerset and Mills spend an exhausting evening (in the library and in the living room, respectively) searching through such tomes as Dante’s Inferno and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for clues to the literary-minded behavior of their serial killer. Extreme overlapping close-ups of pages from these books fill the frame, with words relaying slaughter and punishment moving by with odd grace.

In noirs from the classic era, voice-over narration was used to invoke a sense of tragic inevitability.  As we hear Double Indemnity’s Walter Neff recounting to a tape recorder how he succumbed to the plot of a murderous woman, we know that the damage to this ill-fated man has already been done, that the moment of reparability is in the past.  In Se7en, words such as GREED and GLUTTONY (the first written in blood, the second in grease) work as visual voice-over.  Far less controlled than Walter Neff’s voice-over confession, these written words seem to mock the morality of those who uncover them: “This deed is concrete, it has been written, and it is now too late.  It has probably always been too late.”  The one brief moment of narration that does exist in Se7en arrives in the final moments of the film.  Disguised as a quote from Hemingway and uttered by the one detective who has not been wrenchingly, irreparably changed, perhaps it is an admission of everything that had to happen.

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