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David Lynch’s 1995 cult classic, Se7en, is a cinematic art piece that poses questions galore. Like many of its psychological thriller peers—Se7en forces audience members to study the darker, bleak areas of their own consciences. The film constantly bathes within the concepts of murder, justice, Christian imagery, morality, and the intertwined relationships between all four to not only engage, but unbalance and distort the information we, as audiences, receive. This was definitely not the easiest task to do as a filmmaker, yet, Lynch took on the challenge with a stride that became without a doubt unmatched. In a year surrounded by comedies, family films and action blockbusters (ie. Toy Story, Casper & GoldenEye), Se7en placed 9th financially at the box office, as the ONLY film with horror elements in the top ten. Thus, the film’s success presents a mirror image of what tends to matter to audiences, while viewing cinema—even if you can’t find it at first—especially considering the film being the black sheep of the bunch. And that’s what might be the most spectacular part about it, each and every horror film that hits the box office encourages us to look for those mirror images—but what are they?
Se7en isn’t so much a horror film, as it is a sleuth, for more often than not it’s actually drawing plays from the mystery/suspense handbook. Therefore, as a sleuth, it constantly encourages our eyes and minds to look for something, because we’ve been taught by popular culture to do such a thing with that very genre. But the film does contain horror elements—that’s an unavoidable fact. Arguably, Lynch’s choice to introduce such elements entirely informs how he discovered a path into our psyches. We often take for granted the intelligence of directors in how they can change and shape the film medium, usually due to us experiencing an onslaught of similarities in film, or a sudden contrast. This list can become extensive depending on one’s take on the matter, consisting of the documentary styles from Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, the slasher formula of the 80s or conversely the way the latter paved the road for the meta-esque Scream franchise, and then the exhaustive Scary Movie parodies. Simply put, Lynch was all too aware of “formula,” while he crafted Se7en, deciding to use that one fragile detail, our expectations, to his advantage. Unlike this film’s spiritual connections to other suspense stories such as Silence of the Lambs or Copycat, Lynch played a much more dangerous game hoping to hide each and every one of his intents out of view of the camera.
Richard Dyer, author of the acclaimed essay “White,” offers a view on a cinematic language he believes is normalized by film culture. Dyer, a white man himself, introduces his readers to the concept of whiteness as an “invisible code”—one that presents a binary between those of color or ethnic descent and white characters. White men and women within film constantly are presented as the “end-all-be-all” of fictional societies while other races are often “othered.” You can date such secret points of view back to the original artistic developments of Hollywood (ie. Cleopatra, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Easy Rider, etc.) and it’s an even odder trope to point out in horror, considering “the black guy always dies first” concept. Yet, Dyer’s binary is the first of many things Se7en critically analyzes. It’s two main characters Somerset (portrayed by Morgan Freeman) and Mills (portrayed by Brad Pitt) as often seen in detective films, are two sides of the same coin—both essential to the case at hand. They are obviously opposites by way of methodology, but more importantly, they are most opposite by way of their skin. Somerset—a black man—is incredibly intelligent, patient, and understanding of the world he resides in, regardless of the cynicism he imposes on it. Meanwhile his new partner, Mills—a white man—is a hotheaded, anxious, fireball of a human being who’s letting his personal home life affect his actions and choices during work. They are victims of the invisibility codes at first, especially knowing that Somerset is the only black man for miles throughout the events of the film, but that’s the thing—as we become painfully aware Somerset is black, we’re even more painfully aware that his partner is white. Not because of the racial difference—this isn’t necessarily the simplistic answer of their skin tones—but it’s rather that their beliefs as characters are purposefully connected to the colors they appear as on screen. Black and white. Lynch uses both men as just that, opposite colors, opposite creeds, to represent a deeper character study of the human condition. It’s extremely effective. It’s unsettlingly scary. But why?
Think about it. You don’t see a single soul die in Se7en. No one except the main villain, John Doe (played at the time by an unknown Kevin Spacey). Even Doe’s death sequence could be interpreted as a justified, and meaningful one—but everything else horrific that happens takes place off screen and just to the left of our knowledge. The overweight man who eats himself to death due to “gluttony,” has died far before audiences arrive with Somerset and Mills. Same for the prostitute of “Lust,” the victim of “Pride,” and even “Sloth.” What tends to be more mind-boggling about all the murders and crime scenes is that almost half of the victims originally through twisted terms, consent to John Doe’s game, or purposefully cause the situations they end up in. “Gluttony” agreed to keep eating. “Pride” agreed to commit suicide. “Envy” agreed to give in to temptation. “Wrath” agreed to pull the trigger. All the while we, as audience members, are confused every step of the way. We can’t understand (similarly to Mills) why the victims would agree to such things, nor why we can’t figure out who actually is committing the crimes, or even how these people actually went about dying. And there’s your fear. We don’t know, we don’t know, AND we don’t know. So much is misunderstood in fact that we as audience members begin creating our own menacing images of the deaths we couldn’t see, or weren’t allowed to experience on camera by piecing together the retellings of characters within the film, or assuming things based off what we’ve experienced in past viewings of horror and suspense films. On other levels, we even fear the simple disconnections between the relationships of the film. Why are Somerset and Mills gradually growing a distaste for each other? Why is Mills’ wife so secretive about her opinions? Why hasn’t Somerset let Mills know his wife is pregnant? Why, why, why—more than just once again with a mixture of repressed thought and conversation, whilst pursuing unknown terrors. Roger Ebert hits it right on the head in his 2011 review of Se7en, commenting on the fact that the film is not about detection. John Doe turns himself in with half an hour left on the reel. What we find in Se7en doesn’t ever happen to be as important as what we recognize about our experience of it—and quite possibly—we wouldn’t want to be sharing those experiences with others.
There are two interesting sequences within the films Cat People (1942) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). In Cat People, it’s when Irena attacks Alice in the swimming pool from the shadows. We haven’t seen Irena in her panther form yet, nor we do experience the sight of it during this scene—but we all know—Irena is a panther. Similarly, in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Miles and Becky walk down the streets of their familiar California town, but as they walk, they hold caution. Anyone around them could be lying, could be a threat, and are dangerous until proven otherwise. The invisible and the repressed in one room stalking their prey. It’s up to the audience in both of these cinematic situations to fill in the blanks with their own images and thoughts—and that’s what terrifies us the most. Not only do we know nothing, but here we are in the midst of a plot that is forcing us to engage with things we don’t understand. That is the steady line that David Lynch, and so many other students of horror and suspense edge throughout, taking us into a world beyond the norm. As the artist continues to speak to the audience, he/she lets them finish the sentence—then smiles and says—“got you.”
- Dyer, Richard. WHITE: Essays on Race and Culture. ROUTLEDGE, 2017.
- Ebert, Roger. “Seven Movie Review & Film Summary (1995) | Roger Ebert.” RogerEbert.com, Brian Grazer, 18 July 2011. Retrieved.