David Fincher’s 1995 psychological horror/thriller Se7en is one of most enduring and terrifying films of its kind, standing alongside the likes of The Silence of the Lambs, Zodiac, Frailty, and The Vanishing, amongst others. The tale of two detectives, one new to the force and one on the way out, searching for a serial killer whose victims are chosen according to the seven deadly sins, Se7en was lauded upon release and was wildly commercially successful.
While the gritty, grimy, darkness that pervades throughout the film hovers like a miasma of evil, it’s the ending that has cemented the film in cinema history. I urge those who have not seen the film to avoid reading any further because this piece will delve deep into spoiler territory, ruining a great deal of what makes this film so special.
The serial killer film is nothing if not prolific: Robert Cettl discusses over six hundred examples in his annotated filmography, Richard Dyer argues that there are over two thousand serial killer films, and the IMDB lists more than 3500 film and television titles.  As with any genre, the serial killer film is marked by its typicality. Indeed, Philip Simpson criticises the serial killer film as a subgenre that is “endlessly derivative of its predecessors”.  The tropes of the clever, fiendish killer, his grotesque, ritualistic ‘signature’ and the gifted but damaged investigator are certainly familiar, but how does the serial killer film replicate itself on a textural level? This article will analyse the influence of Kyle Cooper’s much admired opening title sequence in Se7en (David Fincher, 1995).  However, rather than exploring the general influence of the sequence, I will focus on its stylistic similarities to the credit sequences of other serial killer texts such as The Bone Collector (Phillip Noyce, 1999), Red Dragon (Brett Rattner, 2002), Sanctimony (Uwe Boll, 2001), Taking Lives (D.J. Caruso, 2004) and the first season of Whitechapel (Ben Court and Caroline Ip, 2009). I will argue that their imitative or plagiaristic qualities can be interpreted in terms of Mark Seltzer’s work on the repetitive and circular discourse of serial killing.
The title sequence of Se7en appears a few minutes into the film, occurring after a brusque initial encounter between Detectives William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and David Mills (Brad Pitt) at the scene of the first murder. The sequence runs for just over two minutes and contains over a hundred shots, many in close up. It shows a person (whom we retroactively infer is the killer John Doe [Kevin Spacey]) shaving off the skin on his fingertips, and then working on a group of notebooks while wearing bandages. We see Doe writing in longhand, and highlighting and erasing portions of other texts. He also develops photographs and uses scissors to trim Polaroids and pieces of film. Doe incorporates some of these images and texts into the notebooks and then uses needle and thread to stitch the pages of his journal into a book, one of many.
The title sequence provides vital story material for the viewer about Doe’s activities. He removes his fingertips to ensure that he does not leave fingerprints behind, either in his apartment or at crime scenes. This also enables him to toy with the investigators by leaving a message composed of fingerprints on a wall at the second murder scene. Instead of this resulting in Doe’s apprehension, it points the police to his third victim, whose amputated arm was used to ‘write’ the words “help me”. After Doe surrenders, the police discover that he does not have a Social Security number, nor any banking or other official records. He is also, as Somerset states, “John Doe by choice”. His anonymity focuses police attention on to his mission or “work”. Indeed, during the final confrontation, Doe insists that he is not personally important, but that his crimes will be remembered and studied because of their shocking nature and diabolical logic (and Se7en is more memorable than many other serial killer films for precisely this reason).
Thanks to Joe Frady
A video of Lee Child’s intro to last year’s BFI screening of “SE7EN“. I was there that night for the specially imported, ‘privately owned’ (QT?), original CCE 35mm print. I would have preferred a 4K DCP…
November 30, 2017
Thriller author Lee Child talks to the BFI‘s Stuart Brown about David Fincher’s dark crime thriller, which follows a detective duo who find themselves pursuing a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins to theme his murders. With a great ensemble cast and Darius Khondji’s camerawork helping to bring out the bleak, urban landscape, Se7en was a worldwide success.
2013. Reg E. Cathey in House of Cards, Season 1 (Patrick Harbron / Netflix)
Veteran character actor, with a distinctive deep baritone voice, Reg E. Cathey has died at the age of 59, after a battle with lung cancer.
He had an extensive career in both TV and film but started being recognized for his work for David Simon and HBO in the mini-series The Corner and in the fourth and fifth seasons of The Wire, where he played newspaperman turned political operative Norman Wilson.
He also was Prison Unit Manager Martin Querns in the HBO series Oz, and boxing promoter Barry K. Word in the FX series Lights Out starring Holt McCallany.
He gained critical acclaim with his role in the Netflix series created by Beau Willimon House of Cards, as the owner of the small barbecue restaurant enjoyed by Frank Underwood, Freddy Hayes, which earned him three consecutive Emmy Award nominations for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series, including a win in 2015.
Cathey had already worked for David Fincher before the first two episodes of House of Cards. Almost twenty years earlier, he played the brief but “meaty” role of Dr. Santiago in the chillingly memorable post-autopsy scene in Se7en.
Claudio Miranda has had an interesting career thus far. After working as a gaffer on films like Se7en and Fight Club, filmmaker David Fincher (with whom he’d worked on a few commercials and music videos as a cinematographer) asked him to serve as the cinematographer for the wildly ambitious 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. That VFX-intensive effort scored Miranda an Oscar nomination and led to him then shooting visually breathtaking movies like Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, and of course Life of Pi, for which he won the Best Cinematography Oscar.
Miranda’s latest film reteams him with director Joseph Kosinski for the third time and also marks something of a departure—the true story drama Only the Brave. The film revolves around one unit of local firefighters who battled the Yarnell Hill wildfire in 2013 to tragic results. Josh Brolin leads a cast that includes Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, and Jennifer Connelly.
With Only the Brave hitting theaters on October 20th, I recently got the chance to have an extended conversation with Miranda about his work on the film. He talked about his working relationship with Kosinski, the challenges of capturing real fire onscreen, shooting on location, and his approach to shooting realistic visual effects.
But I’m also a big fan of Miranda’s work in general, so the conversation veered off into his early days working as a gaffer for Fincher, and we discussed his “trial by fire” experience shooting Benjamin Button as well as what it’s like to work with Fincher and how his gaffer work with other cinematographers like Harris Savides and Dariusz Wolski has shaped his approach. Finally, with Kosinski next set to direct the Top Gun sequel Top Gun: Maverick, I asked Miranda what the prep has been like on that movie so far.
It’s a wide-ranging and refreshingly candid conversation that hopefully admirers of Miranda’s work, or just those curious about cinematography in general, will find illuminating. I certainly had a great time chatting with the talented DP.