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Se7en: Platinum Series

New Line Home Video

Starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman

Written by Andrew Kevin Walker
Directed by David Fincher

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

Se7en is the most unsatisfying serial killer movie ever made. And I mean that in the best possible sense.

Imagine what this masterpiece would have been like if, say, Joel Schumacher or Richard Donner had directed it. The film would have begun with an action sequence unrelated to the actual series of crimes to be portrayed later. The two new cop partners, like Danny Glover and Mel Gibson, would start out uneasy and suspicious but would soon become loyal to each other. During the investigation, they would be much more on top of things, and then, having solved the crime, and knowing that a wife is now in danger, there would be a race across the city to get to the house before the final murder is complete. The killer would be vanquished, killed, lying there. Then rise from the dead. Then be shot by the two partners simultaneously.

Andrew Kevin Walker's script doesn't work that way. It begins, under the direction of David Fincher, with glacial slowness, like a Ridley Scott film. In the rain. The actual investigation, in which it soon dawns on the cops that a serial killer is mimicking the seven deadly sins, perplexes the two new partners, the young hotheaded David Mills (Brad Pitt) and the soon-to-retire and more thoughtful William Somerset (Morgan Freeman). Then, just when the case is about to break, and with two killings to go, the killer (who goes by the name John Doe) tips his hand. Thus is set up a searing climax, and one of the most unusual, well-written and well-acted final sequences from any film in the 1990s.

Though I resisted this quality of unexpectedness as much as anybody at the time, one of the things I now really admire about Se7en is the ambiguity of the roles of good and evil. The key moment that illustrates this is when the head of the SWAT team (Oliver Stone favorite John C. McGinley) leans down to the withered near-corpse of Victor, AKA Theodore Allen, the "sloth" victim, and murmurs "You got what you deserved." The moment that follows is memorable but distracts the viewer from the fact that the cop is endorsing John Doe's justice. The serial killer is enacting the kind of clear cut vengeance that the police in this city, unnamed but either New York or Philadelphia (and shot in Los Angeles), seem unable to do. The city has worn down everyone, and while all are either fleeing — like the retiring Somerset — or adopting the mask of apathy, Mills actually sought out the job. He believes he can make a difference. But Se7en exists to prove him wrong, because the only one who has made a difference is John Doe, through creating (as Somerset notes) his "masterpiece."

Se7en is a dark film, with an ambiguous, almost despairing ending. Yet this $30 million movie — which took 55 days to shoot by a director coming off of the hooted Alien 3 and shooting a first-time screenplay — earned $100 million in the U.S. (and $316 million worldwide) upon its release in 1995. It was a hit, but an odd one. Se7en was nominated for, and even won, a handful of awards, but it seems to have infected the culture in odd ways. The influential credit sequence has appeared since then in commercials, videos, and other movies. And the inevitable trickle-down has seen bits of Se7en pop up, homogenized, in television shows such as Profiler and CSI.

Repeated viewings over a short period of time — a necessity with the supplements-packed DVDs issued nowadays — serve only to enhance one's respect for the film. Freeman is brilliant in an inward, almost wordless manner, dignified and sorrowful; established early is his hypersensitivity to sound, which serves as an analog to his final revulsion from a society that coarsens one as a prelude to surviving in it. Pitt — the new James Dean — is noisy, restless, reckless; a perfect embodiment of the doomed character, and the quiet Somerset's opposite in all respects. There is a brilliant sequence that crosscuts between their two approaches to research: Mills restless and frustrated and finally giving in to a basketball game on TV, while Somerset methodically looks through a library (as Bach's "Ode on the G String" soars aloft) for key details that illuminates the whole. And yet moments can be darkly funny. There are some jokes, such as the one about the Maugham title Of Human Bondage ("Not what you think"). A notable scene when a dead dog is discovered in a field prompts the slaughterning Doe to dryly note "I didn't do that." In his own attempt at researching the killer, Mills turns to Cliffs Notes. And in a black, almost sick way, Doe's concept-art approach to murder, employing the sins Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Lust, Pride, Envy, and Wrath, in that order, has a certain wit about it.

Fincher's blend of unceasing rain, dark interiors, and a dwelling on the baseness of humanity ("What sick ridiculous puppets we are, and what gross little stage we dance on. What fun we have dancing and fucking. Not a care in the world. Not knowing that we are nothing. We are not what was intended"), and an inexorable story make for an abject experience. In fact, New Line reportedly wanted to mute the despair and urged the filmmakers to use one of two alternate endings (a compromise was reached that allowed the film to maintain its bleak integrity). But still, the question that always arises from a film that seems to offer no hope is: Why did they make it? That's difficult to address, because the answer is within the texture of the work, between the exchanged glances, within the unemphasized moments of dialogue, and charted throughout the paired images. Doe putting his gun to Mills's head is matched by Mills at a later moment. Roles, moral imperatives, and social functions are switched around. The cops are lacking, but the serial killers are exacting justice. It's a world of seeming chaos, but this world (like the film itself) is utterly simple if you know how to view the patterns. And Somerset does. That's the lesson he can impart, if anyone were to listen. He would warn of a world in which futile, if noisy, SWAT cops lean down to taunt a seemingly dead villain with the justice he has received at the hands of someone who has taken on for himself the mantle of God.

For the record, Se7en on Laserdisc and DVD has an unusual, complicated history. There have been several lasers, but the important one came out from Criterion in March of 1996 with several supplements, including an audio commentary by Fincher and Pitt, Freeman, screenwriter Walker, production designer Arthur Max, make-up and effects artist Rob Bottin, and others, plus deleted scenes and outtakes, even dailies, as well as the crime scene photographs, production design sketches, storyboards, a section dedicated to the opening credit sequence, what is called a "visual essay" on the make-up design, a section on John Doe's photographs and diaries with comments from photographer Melodie McDaniel, the trailer, eight television spots, and on-the-set footage. It was a fabulous array of material, and the only things missing from New Line's Platinum Series two-DVD set are the make-up effects with commentary by Rob Bottin, the outtakes with Brad Pitt, the deleted artwork for posters, and a few other things (which Pitt and Fincher even mention in their commentary on this DVD release). And of course, the many commentaries — some short, some feature length — seem to be new.

Se7en: Platinum Series offers an anamorphic transfer (2.40:1), but the big question is if the source print includes the "silver nitrate retention" on a limited number of prints during the original theatrical release — something of a cult among fans of the film, and which was used on the Criterion LD. The answer is No, but it doesn't matter. Fincher and colorist Stephen Nakamura have created a new visual version of Se7en that was impossible to achieve in the early 1990s, and they have not just remastered the film but reframed parts of it and recolored it. The full extent of these changes is covered on the second disc, but the result is evident on the first. It's a clear, clean, crisp visual experience that retains the darkness of the original film while allowing more of the detail to emerge. New Line's original DVD release of Se7en (from way back in March of 1997) was a "flipper" and only featured cast and crew bios, but the transfer seemed to be derived from the Criterion laser. In early 2000, a Region 2 DVD release of Se7en offered a new transfer and additional extras. Now, in collaboration with Fincher, New Line has re-released the film in a spectacular set, using the original negative for a high-definition master under further augmentation by Fincher and his team. Audio is in either DTS ES 6.1 or Dolby Digital EX, and sound production is, in a word, superb. This is a film with a lot of rain in it, and lots of moving around in rooms, and these soundtracks serve these aural effects perfectly. There's also a Dolby 2.0 Surround track, as well as English and French subtitles and with closed-captioning.

There was a time when film directors took what seems to have been a vow of silence. Nothing would get them to talk about intentions, ideas, vision. Think back to a recalcitrant John Ford in Peter Bogdanovich's documentary about him. Nothing. He wouldn't allow as how he ever had a thought about a movie. But today directors are very eager to talk about their thinking and the processes of moviemaking, and the detail they go into makes it clear that, movies being so complicated and hard to make, directors from the Ford-Hawks-Fleming era must have spent a lot of time planning, thinking, consulting on, and issuing orders about all of their films. Se7en: Platinum Series comes with no less than four audio commentary tracks, the same number as on Fincher's Fight Club DVD (released by Fox). The first track is with Fincher and Brat Pitt, with some comments by Morgan Freeman edited into their mix. Freeman, like his character, is thoughtful and brooding, and he talks a little about himself and his past. Fincher and Pitt stick to the screen and comment on what they see, telling insightful and amusing stories about the production history. Next is an audio commentary hosted by critic Richard Dyer, who wrote an excellent BFI monograph on the film. Also contributing are Fincher, screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, editor Richard Francis-Bruce, and New Line honcho Michael De Luca. This one is somewhat weak, since it is entirely made from edited excerpts. Walker, who must be fascinating, isn't given enough audio time, and most of the things he says are familiar to anyone who has read interviews with him, especially in the interview that precedes the Faber and Faber edition of Se7en and 8mm. The most detailed and informative commentary is the one with Richard Dyer, Fincher, Richard Francis-Bruce, director of photography Darius Khondji, and production designer Arthur Max. Finally, the weakest is the commentary Dyer conducts with Fincher, composer Howard Shore, and sound designer Ren Klyce over an isolated music track (the weakest because the score to this movie isn't as good and memorable as it should be).

Additional supplements include carefully selected essays that expand one's knowledge and appreciation of the film. The first is a three minute multi-angle "exploration" of the opening credit sequence. Here we get three angles with six audio options. The angles can be switched among the storyboard sketches, the rough-cut version, and the final version. The five audio tracks switch between the DTS ES mix, the DD EX mix, the Dolby 2.0 mix, a commentary by concept designer Kyle Cooper, and a commentary by sound engineers Brant Biles and Robert Margouleff. There are also seven deleted scenes and extended takes, with commentary (and frankly, all of this should have been in the film as it stands now). Bits of the original opening are now scattered throughout the film, and it's interesting to reconstruct it. We can also view two alternate endings, one a more downbeat version of the current one, and the other recreated from storyboards, with a radically different conclusion. All of these features have optional commentary tracks. There is an animated stills gallery of the crime scenes with commentary, production photos with commentary, behind-the-scenes photos with commentary, details of John Doe's notebooks with commentary. Probably the feature that's going to appeal to the tech-heads and fanboys the most is the multi-angle "Mastering For Home Theater" presentations. This 23-minute section comes in three parts, one concerning audio mastering, one on video mastering, and the third on color correction, all with commentaries (basically), but the best thing is that they show you how the film was altered while you actually watch the technicians fix it. In the accompanying gallery, we get a multi-angle, multi-audio comparison between the original version and the newly enhanced version for three scenes. This entire supplement needs to be seen and heard to be believed — it's a mini-tutorial in modern movie technology.

The rest of the supplements are relatively routine, including cast and crew filmographies, the theatrical trailer, and the electronic press kit (which has a little bit of on-set footage). The DVD-ROM features include "John Doe's World" with photo gallery, a guide to the seven deadly sins, reading list and fan-site links, and the complete script with direct scene access. The interactive menu comes with 37-chapter scene selection. The layer switch on Disc One occurs in chapter 21 and is evident. Also, some folks may find the discs to be difficult to remove from the unfolding dual-DVD digipak.

— D. K. Holm

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