“[He] loves to set his figures in action against greenish or purplish backgrounds, in which we can glimpse the phosphorescence of decay and sniff the coming storm.”—Charles Baudelaire, writing on Edgar Allan Poe.

W hat’s striking about Seven is that the detectives never get the better of the killer. They’re two steps behind him from beginning to end, and so are we. It’s a police procedural/horror hybrid in which the fascination with death outweighs the logic of detection. There’s almost no violence enacted on the screen. There are no scenes of the killer stalking his victims. The film refuses that kind of cheap thrill. All we see is the evidence of violence.

In the world of Seven, man is corrupt and cities are cesspools of contagion, spreading sin faster than TB. Forget the inequities of class or race, we’re all sinners and urban blight is the Lord’s decor for the gates of hell. If Seven eschews the mythic underpinnings of Fincher’s first feature, Alien 3, its ambiance is even more overwhelming. Every frame seems saturated with despair. Fincher’s concrete sense of place is the cornerstone of his directing talent. Working with production designer Arthur Max (who developed his apocalyptic style as a stage lighting designer for Pink Floyd and Genesis) and cinematographer Darius Khondji (also of Delicatessen and The City of Lost Children), Fincher brings forth an acrid vision of post-industrial decay—all dank greens and browns, the light filtered through pelting rain and yellow smog. The walls are peeling, the dust is thick, the clutter is out of control. If not for a couple of already obsolete computer terminals in the police station, you might think you were in a 1930s depression picture or a 1940s noir. In any event, it looks as if things have been spiraling downhill since just about the time motion pictures were invented.

Seven literalizes the struggle of bringing things to light. As in his video for Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got a Gun,” Fincher loves the look of flashlights penetrating obscure and terrifying places. The extremely shallow focus is a way of controlling the viewer’s eye, making you look at what you don’t want to see and suggesting that there’s something worse that you can’t get a grip on lurking on the periphery.

Seven is, from beginning to end, as lush and lyrical a film as ever came out of Hollywood. Watching Mills and Somerset chase the killer, leaping and staggering through shafts of light diffused through centuries of dust, one things of Tourneur and Feuillade (the almost monochromatic color cinematography has the density of black and white). But Fincher not only molds space with light, he shapes time with it too. Every time a shot changes, the light streaming softly from a window or a lamp hits the eye like a muffled drum beat.

Fincher’s approach is to maintain clinical detachment while heightening the visceral quality of his imagery. The dead in Seven have met with very bad ends. If we are fascinated by their remains, it’s because Fincher is so good at suggesting that there is nothing to prevent us from winding up just like them.

These notes were adapted from Amy Taubin’s essay “The Allure of Decay” originally printed in Sight and Sound, January 1996.

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