“Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.”

So concludes Morgan Freeman’s character in the final moments of Seven. On paper, the statement is a determined message of conviction. On screen, the words fall devastatingly short. The need for something positive in the wake of destruction is innate, but, like reaching out for a light switch in the middle of a blackout, any real belief in the action here is woefully absent. Watching the film now, 25 years after it was made, Seven is just as smart, just as cynical, and just as shocking as it was when it was first released.

The premise of the film is a simple one: Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman), jaded by the horrors of his work and the world around him, wants nothing more than to reach his retirement. Detective Mills (Brad Pitt), driven by his idealistic ambition to transfer into the department, wants to work to change the world around him. Over the course of a week, the pair investigate a string of murders that threaten to tear apart everything they thought they knew.

Seven Freeman Pitt

Courtesy of: New Line Cinema

Seven (or Se7en, if you prefer the stylised title) is, at its most straightforward, a detective story. Hell, the film even bears hallmarks of the buddy-cop genre: Mills and Somerset clash from the moment they meet, but faced with the depravity of the case they’re working on, it doesn’t take long for that animosity to cave towards grudging respect, and eventually camaraderie. There are even moments of comedy: the no-nonsense police captain (R. Lee Ermey) armed with witty one-liners, the vibrating apartment that Mills and his wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), call home, and the squint-or-you’ll-miss-them newspaper headlines like “neighbour’s beagle scares teen, cures 8-year bout with hiccups.” These moments of levity are brief, and serve as both a realistic reprieve and to further emphasise the depths of the darkness into which this film sinks.

And this is a dark film, one that feels all the more so for its carefully constructed realism. Detective work is tedious, and we see it as such. We witness the long hours spent examining evidence, poring over clues, diving into research, and waiting for analysis results. We linger in long car journeys, hoping for a solution and a sense of security that we know is out of reach. In the film’s one chase scene we experience the uncertainty, the lack of clear direction, and the potential threat of an armed criminal around every corner. The problems the detectives are fighting to solve don’t start or end with the case they’re working on either. These problems exist in the world at large, visible on street corners seen only through passing taxi windows.

Seven Freeman Pitt 2

Courtesy of: New Line Cinema

It’s a testament to the construction of the world which this film inhabits that while we feel this darkness – recoil from it, fear it, even – we don’t see any brutality in action. Much like Mills and Somerset, we’re presented with the aftermath and draw our own dark conclusions. Of course, what made Seven such a success is its final half hour. That’s when it happens: in a city that has, up until this point, been masked by torrential rain, we see the sunlight – and that’s when everything goes to hell.

Alfred Hitchcock, the revered master of suspense, famously said that “to me, murder by a babbling brook drenched in sunshine is more interesting than murder in a dark and noisome alley littered with dead cats and offal.” Director David Fincher subscribed to a similar school of thought when he made Seven. In the harsh light of day, we see the murderer Mills and Somerset have spent the duration of the film searching for (Kevin Spacey) walk into the police station with his blood-soaked hands held high in surrender. John Doe’s abrupt appearance signals the beginning of the end. With the criminal in police custody and yet thirty minutes of the film still to go, it leaves the audience off-kilter, begging the question of what sordid secrets are even left for the final act to unfold.

Seven Final Scene

Courtesy of: New Line Cinema

When Mills and Somerset confront John Doe, it’s not, as you might have expected from the genre, in an interrogation room, but on a car journey to uncover the killers final two victims. Surrounded by desert, illuminated by daylight, he preaches his cause to his captive audience of two, and to the audience watching at home. “We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it,” he effuses. “We tolerate it because it’s common, it’s trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon, and night.” Impassioned and uninterrupted, he’s given the chance to convince the detectives – and us too – that maybe, just maybe, he might have a point. It’s a gut-twist of an emotion that, once realised, we’re quick to shake as we head towards the film’s devastating conclusion.

The conclusion was initially rejected and repeatedly contested by the studio for being too dark. Upwards of seven different alternatives were pitched but both Fincher and Pitt insisted that the initial script – sent to Fincher by mistake – was the only ending they were interested in making. Isolated in the desert, Doe finally confesses his own cardinal sin: envy. He envied Mills’ normal life with his beautiful wife, and when he couldn’t take them by force he decided on something he could take: Tracy’s head, couriered to their remote desert location just as he starts to confess.

Seven Box

Courtesy of: New Line Cinema

Four minutes. It takes four minutes for Somerset to open the cardboard box left at his feet, for Doe to confess his final crime, and for Mills to be wracked with a sense of grief so profound he plays straight into the criminals plan and walks away without remorse. It’s four minutes made to feel like the ground has dropped out from beneath you. It’s since been lauded as one of the most iconic twists in cinema history. Pitt’s anguished cry of “what’s in the box?” has not only left a lasting cultural imprint, but become a part of contemporary vernacular.

That’s how the film was meant to end, with no coda or reprieve but with gunshots and pitch darkness. At the studios insistence, a final scene was added: Mills in the back of a police car, Somerset left reeling, and a lingering quote from Hemingway. Fincher, Freeman, and Pitt all describe this add-on as unnecessary, but as Fincher himself states in the films commentary, “if movies were just what the director thought it was supposed to be, they’d be fucking boring.”

Seven Pitt Freeman

Courtesy of: New Line Cinema

Seven ends with an attempt to find closure that pales in the wake of the devastating blows that precede it. The sentiment should be positive, we want to find something positive, but any sentiment is absent or kept at bay by shock. What we’re left with is the recollection of a twisted series of events, harrowing emotion, and – prompted by Somerset’s final words – a lingering question. “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” The unspoken question remains: how much do you agree?