All Hell Broke Loose: David Fincher’s Se7en And The Medieval Morality Play

David Fincher’s grisly neo-noir turns 25 this year, but its major influences go back much further than the film industry. Kristina Murkett explores the film’s roots in the medieval morality play

Kristina Murkett
September 25, 2020
The Quietus

The gruesome, grim and gut-wrenching ending of Se7en is unparalleled. The “What’s in the box?” scene is a murderous masterpiece; Fincher’s direction is so violent, visceral and unsettling that the scene becomes not only about an execution on film, but the execution of film-making.

All of the elements in this scene combine to create the final climax in which detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) shoots serial-killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey): the sickly yellow colour palette; the handheld camera shots; the ominous crescendo in the score; and the menacing metaphor of Doe’s silhouette in his blood-red uniform against the setting sun.

In killing him, Mills fulfils Doe’s prophecy; in Doe’s own words, he “[becomes] vengeance, [becomes] wrath.”

Twenty-five years ago, when audiences first walked out of the cinema solemn and more than a little shell-shocked, critics realised the seismic power of the film. Roger Ebert said that​ “Se7en is one of the darkest and most merciless films ever made in the Hollywood mainstream,” whilst John Wrathall described it as “the most complex and disturbing entry in the serial killer genre since Manhunter.”

These reviews still ring true; the film’s themes are intense, insidious, and irredeemably gloomy, and yet the performances and psychological terror of the script are still undeniably gripping. Its box-office success (it was the seventh-highest grossing film of 1995) arguably secured Fincher’s image as a master of bleak, bold blockbusters, and it is still the 28th most highly rated film of all time on IMDb.

There are many works that had an important influence on the film: Silence of the Lambs, Psycho and M, to name a few. However, one of the most revelatory influences, and one that can help us to understand the fatal foreshadowing of the characters’ endings, is actually a genre that came 500 years before Se7en: the medieval morality play.

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