Pressure and Obsession in the Films of David Fincher

“This guy’s methodical, exacting, and worst of all, patient”
William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) on John Doe (Kevin Spacey) in Seven

Piers McCarthy
February 2012 / November 15, 2018

< Chapter 1: Literature Review

Chapter 2: Seven

Seven revolves around two detectives: a soon-to-be-retired police officer, William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), and recently transferred cop David Mills (Brad Pitt). The two are partnered up to investigate a series of gruesome murders inspired by the seven deadly sins. As the investigation continues, the audience learn about Somerset’s disdain for the society he inhabits, and the hardships Mills’ wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) faces in the same environment. The climatic ending involves the capture of the murderer, John Doe (Kevin Spacey), and a battle of wits and gumption between the highly intelligent Doe and enraged Mills; an impartial Somerset having to witness a bizarre justice before his eyes.

Seven was the film that both reflected the demons of society and Fincher’s cathartic release from a severe studio authority (his previous film being Alien3, a famously horrific shoot for Fincher – ‘I had to work on it for two years, got fired off it three times and I had to fight for every single thing’).1 Seven was a film Fincher could put his seal-of-approval on after walking away from the post-production edit of Alien3  after showing ‘no desire to assert any sense of authorship’ over it.2 The darkness, so integral for Alien3, became the milieu for many of Fincher’s films. As Philip Kemp states, ‘David Fincher is a devotee of darkness. Scene after scene in his films takes place in cramped, sparsely lit rooms where malignancy seems to hang in the air like ineradicable damp’ – the sense of gloom becoming one of the most striking features of Seven.3 The pressures of the working environment are not only a matter Fincher dealt with personally but it is something he seeks to explore in many of his films. In the likes of Seven and Fight Club, it is the most extreme working and living conditions that have the light (or lack of) shed on them. Like the characters of Mills and Somerset, Fincher has an impulse to search and survey the shadows of society, along with the misanthropes lurking within them.

The opening of the film focuses on Somerset starting his day and promptly illuminates many qualities of the character, beginning with his meticulous and composed approach to detective work. The montage of Somerset gearing up for a day of work is steadily captured in a way that mirrors the detective’s slow dressing and accessorizing. The cut to the bloodied crime-scene that Somerset enters into shows to have no effect on the demeanour of him. He sardonically remarks about the blood (“passion on the walls”) to demonstrate his indifference to the terror and gore of his job. Despite the pressure of a belligerent second officer and the sanguine surroundings, the obsession to fully comprehend the situation is immediately apparent. Upon querying witnesses (the “kid”), the aggressive second officer snaps, “it’s always these questions with you” – informing the viewer that (apparently) Somerset has a reputation as an annoyingly meticulous investigator. This idea is further reinforced later on by the captain’s remark, “Don’t even start that big brain of yours cooking”. Somerset is always vigilant and occupied with thoughts concerning work (this type of character repeated in Zodiac and The Social Network). Despite some contrary remarks to wanting to stay on the case (“This can’t be my last duty, it’s just gonna go on and on”) Somerset becomes intrigued by the case and even prefers it to have an older detective on it rather than Mills – “it’s too soon for him” is Somerset’s reasoning.

Somerset’s decision to continue investigating the series of murders can be seen as both his obsessive ego (one that rejects failure and uncertain closure) and his inability to escape the world he so desperately attempts to break away from. Somerset is aware of the wretchedness of his city, yet feels so incapable of leaving it behind; instead, he prefers to try and fix it. Mills is similarly hoping to do some good; he is ‘the young upstart, who wants to believe the world can be changed’.4 Even though Mills declares that his own aim is to “do some good”, he is not as wise and knowing as Somerset who can completely involve himself in his work. Mills, on the other hand, has less patience for case inconsistencies and with retaining his hatred for Doe. Furthermore, Mills is at one point seen shutting himself off from the investigation by watching a baseball match. Somerset shows little in the way of relinquishing work and does not get aggressively agitated with the serial killer. Throughout the film he is not pressured by the ‘overwhelming force of sin [;] he is doing the best he can, not shrugging his shoulders like the captain (“it’s the way it’s always been”) or the sex club owner (”that’s life, isn’t it?) [;] setting his metronome to provide some sense of orderliness in a world wholly lacking in it’.5 When Somerset shows and voices concerns over the state of society, he never appears definite in his desire to distance himself from it. In one scene, Somerset enters a taxi and passes by an accident of an undisclosed nature. He rolls the eyes at the sight of the accident’s random audience and the impression of increasing gloom. The taxi driver asks, “where you headin’?” to which Somerset replies, “Far from here”. Nevertheless, “far from here” only relocates him to a library, to which he spends an evening glancing over the killer’s most probable sources of inspiration. Fincher purports the idea that crime and misery have no limit and there is seldom chance to escape it. The library may be a tranquil setting yet it is filled with literature that has encouraged certain ideologies (in this case, those of Doe’s).

The viewer’s introduction to Mills, after he greets Somerset, is him out on the street. As he walks down the pavement, a man bumps into him and carries on walking; Mills looks at him for a brief few seconds as if waiting for confrontation, or hoping the citizen sees his unspoken demand for an apology. Somerset has long since given up attempting to gain apologies or feeling the need to lash out on the wrong-doers. The ultimate example of both characters showing their response to provocation is the finale in which Mills ‘characteristically ignores Somerset’s wisdom and turns an already horrible situation into a complete defeat’.6 In one way, Mills’s obsession with defeating the killer and submitting to his own primal, stirred desires to kill Doe relates to ‘competitive behaviour… [that is] associated with intragroup conflict’ whereby Mills wants to prove Somerset wrong about the idea that he is not ready for the case; if he takes control he is therefore worthy of his position.7 Rather than acting in moderation like Somerset, he is impetuous and needs to please – this is his obsessive compulsion. He also has less intellect than Somerset and Doe, yet finds his resourcefulness with his agile physique. The irony is that in killing Doe his control gets him reprimanded and he becomes a ghost of his former self. The loss of his wife and job is captured in his doleful eyes as he sits in the car (interestingly similar to Somerset’s appearance as he looks out of the taxi window in the “far from here” scene).

1995. Seven 01

1995. Seven 02
“Far from here”

Whereas Somerset and Doe have taken time to consider the society they live in, Mills never has chance to get to grips with it (neither does his wife Tracy, who finds no comfort in the new city). The over-arching misery and drizzle of the unnamed city is something Mills gets repeatedly angry over – in this respect he has his own link to Doe, who has similarly decided to act out violently against the society. Mills’ similarity to Doe is far more harmful than Somerset’s. The rage that often drives Mills’ actions (like his break-in into Doe’s home) is comparable to Doe’s own fury (paralleled with Doe entering Mills’ apartment to kill Tracy). As Mills and Doe sit in close proximity to one another nearing the end of the film we are given affirmation of these observations: ‘he [Doe] admits that he enjoyed committing the murders just as Mills would enjoy “a time alone with me in a room without windows”, in other words, that Mills, like him, has a pleasure in violence put to righteous ends’.8 The obsession to catch Doe and Doe’s own obsession to finish his criminal act by his own terms intensifies the already substantial friction.  Somerset knows that at the end, “John Doe has the upper-hand” yet cannot walk away from the battle of detective and criminal. In the end, both detectives fail in their sustenance of authority and in achieving anything.

Crime and malice continue to be prolific aspects of popular culture and with Fincher making a successful film out such a story he is in turn showing the engrossing qualities of crime. Seven was made at a time where the serial killer fascination was becoming more and more evident. After the Oscar success of The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, Orion Pictures, 1991) the “appeal” of serial killer stories was quickly endorsed by Hollywood writers and studios. Seven is illustriously different and original in comparison to Lambs that follows a linear structure of investigation and capture. Doe is a phantom throughout the first two-thirds of the film (in the vein of serial killers in other mystery/crime thrillers) although the major difference is ‘the apprehension of [Doe]… is deliberately (and possibly uniquely in film history) brought forward with still a significant running time remaining, creating the highly unusual effect of disorientating an audience by a narrative, that is clearly placed within the detective genre but denying us any generic markers around from which to generate expectations of impending direction’.9 Doe is in complete control of the narrative from the very first murder. His inimitable and deeply-puzzling crime spree is enough to warrant Somerset’s continuation on the force (even to the end when he states, “I’ll be around”) and to have Mills fighting for his inclusion on the case – Doe completely inveigles Somerset and Mills into a cat and mouse chase that leads up to a trap. At the heart of Doe’s playfulness is the question of power and masculinity. The detective genre is frequently looking at the ‘obsession with male figures who are both internally divided and alienated from the culturally permissible (or ideal) parameters of masculine identity, desire and achievement’.10 Fincher’s film shows how the two detectives are both fascinated and disgusted at this concept of alienation; it is the character of Doe that makes the detectives act against ethics when it comes to maintaining power.

As Doe plants Somerset and Mills in the seediest, rankest places imaginable, the viewer is left increasingly appalled at the society that houses such atrocious areas (such as Wild Bill’s Leather Shop and the sex club). This is another element of Seven that critiques the state of contemporary culture. Fincher develops this critique by making the city ‘representational of any city; its time, of any time: the film transcends specificities’ – an indication that numerous Western cities are like this.11 Something that Richard Dyer fails to mention in his analysis of Seven is occasional glimpses of sunlight (just before the raid on Victor’s house, Doe entering the police station, and on the way to the desert at the finale) both at times where the narrative appears to be moving to a point of closure.

1995. Seven 03

1995. Seven 04

1995. Seven 05

It is interesting that the break in ambience – from murk to blinding light – is an attempt to propose change. It comes at dramatic sequences in the film and makes the audience believe there may be a semblance of hope, or that the two detectives have a chance at obtaining power. Much like the unpredictable nature of the film, this notion is fleeting and the audience is left with the proposal that the urban atmosphere and conceptions of anarchy are ever-present. Seven stresses the idea that ‘one cannot help but feel that the city is inescapable [;]…the country road on which the final showdown takes place is riddled with wires and pylons, and still accessible by car and helicopter. The labyrinth of the city is characterized not only by maze-like alleys, but also by the feeling that there is no escape from it’.12

The confining space of the city is something Fincher pays meticulous attention towards. As Dyer notes, the sound of the film is overwhelming distinct. Fincher’s devotion to technology in his films means there is an accumulation of detail that would ordinarily be overlooked. For the sound, Fincher makes it obvious how ‘we do not attend to the patina of noise around us, and most films minimise it down to a vague “ambient sound”. In Seven, it is not minimised, it is insistently and remorselessly present’.13 The patter of rain, police sirens, alarms, yells from citizens and constant noise of traffic is rarely muted. Fincher emphasizes the sound as much as the darkened cityscape. As Alien3 showed, Fincher is an aficionado for the dimmest lighting. Seven’s colour-scheme has been categorised as ‘oligochromatic, that is, composed of a very limited, closely related range of colours: white, cream, grey, slate, ochre, beige, brown, black and dirty, acidic greens’; this can be attributed to his later films (even the recent Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is drenched in green, grey and black colour palettes).14 The sound and image combining to generate an overwhelmingly constrictive space that creates an arena for violence and constant interaction between citizens (dynamically presented with Mills chasing Doe through flats and crowds of frightened, angered and busy civilians).

Fincher’s desolate conclusion to Seven shows the human spirit as unmanageable and deadly, highlighting the belief that evil is almost unstoppable and modernity limits freedom. As much as the case seems finished, there are multiple implications to Mills’ actions, we see the ‘desert as a metaphoric hell…a fitting backdrop to Mills’s damnation’ – Fincher’s first filmic presentation of civilization’s ruin.15 The pressure of work exhausts and endangers the two detectives whilst obsession fails to bring about justice – the treatment of the two themes re-emerging in 2007’s Zodiac.

Chapter 3: Zodiac >


1. David Fincher interviewed by Mark Salisbury in The Guardian, 18 January, 2009
2. Mark Browning, David Fincher: Films That Scar (California, USA: Praeger, 2010) p.39
3. Philip Kemp, David Fincher – Director
4. Nev Pierce, email correspondence with the author, 8 February, 2010, 17:50
5. Dyer, Seven, p.76
6. Philip L. Simpson, Psycho Paths: Tracking The Serial Killer Through Contemporary American Film and Fiction (Illinois, USA: Southern Illinois Press, 2000) p.199
7. Klein, Workers Under Stress, p.90
8. Dyer, Seven, p.26
9. Browning, David Fincher: Films that Scar, pp. 68-9
10. Frank Krutnik, In A Lonely Street: Film noir, genre and masculinity (London: Routledge, 1991) Introduction xiii
11. Philippa Gates, Detecting Men: Masculinity and the Hollywood Detective Film (New York, USA: State University of New York Press, 2006) p.164
12. Gates, Detecting Men: Masculinity and the Hollywood Detective Film p.266
13. Dyer, Seven, p.50
14. Ibid, p.62
15. Simpson, Psycho Paths: Tracking The Serial Killer Through Contemporary American Film and Fiction p.199