A world without hope: “Seven” by David Fincher

One of the funniest Hollywood anecdotes of recent years comes from “Seven” director David Fincher. But if you haven’t seen the film yet, it’s best not to read any further. This story revolves around the shocking ending of the thriller.

Again and again, Fincher says, he was asked at parties about the ending of his film: How he could have dared to show Gwyneth Paltrow’s head, bloody, separated from the body, stored in a cardboard box. That was simply too much. “I couldn’t calm people down anymore,” says the director.


The protest says a lot about the power of imagination, as Paltrow’s severed head is not visible in any shot, only the horrified face of lead actor Morgan Freeman as he looks into the box. But the audience thought ahead and has had an image of the beheading in their minds ever since.

Everyone in the cinema stood vertically in their chairs

To this day, the ending of “Seven” is described in many rankings as one of the most surprising and frightening ever. Of course, also because it contrasts with the explicit depiction of violence that had characterized the film up to that point. A serial killer executes his victims according to the seven deadly sins of the Bible: pride, greed, envy, anger, lust, gluttony and sloth.

The police officers David Mills (Brad Pitt) and William R. Somerset (Freeman) come across the corpse of a fraudulent lawyer who was forced to cut off his body parts, “mortal sin”: greed. Perhaps the most impressive is the scene that underlies the “mortal sin” indolence. A man tied to the bed, emaciated to the point of a skeleton, lets out a loud breath just as the police bend over the supposedly dead man. A real Jump Scare, everyone in the cinema back then stood vertically in their chairs. This corpse is still alive?!

Brad Pitt (left) with Morgan Freeman

And then the end with the head in the box. A grandiose finale, as if director Fincher wanted to say: You’ve seen enough blood, now use your imagination. Nobody imagined that the pregnant Tracy, Mills’ wife played by Gwyneth Paltrow, would also die. She was an angelic figure, the only person without an evil shadow in an anonymous American city that was filmed almost exclusively in the dark and rain. Tracy’s performances, staged in an unintentionally chauvinistic manner, did not take place in the dangerous outside world, but mostly in her kitchen-living room.

Hailed as a neo-noir masterpiece when it was released in 1995, “Seven” was above all a typical thriller of the nineties. Fast cuts, hard fades in and out. The executions almost look like macabre works of art in thousands of colors. At the same time, David Bowie also had a similar gothic aesthetic for the videos for his industrial album “1. Outside”, and its single “The Hearts Filty Lesson” also provided the accompaniment to the end credits – which seems prophetic in the context of the film. Some of the ideas from “Seven” are an integral part of action cinema today. Here, for the first time, police officers shine their long flashlights from above, as if they were moving ski poles while cross-country skiing. You almost expect Police Officer Pitt to hold his automatic pistol in a horizontal grip. But luckily only the gangsters in the bad films do that. “Seven” avoids the cliché.

Kevin Spacey, the star of the 1990s

All protagonists benefited from the success of the film. For Brad Pitt, the role of the hot-headed Mills marked his breakthrough; for the first time, the focus was not on his pretty appearance (as in “Interview with a Vampire” and “Legends of Passion”) or on his carelessly trimmed appearance (“Kalifornia”). He is a police officer who ultimately loses his nerve, thereby ensuring the serial killer’s triumph. In “Seven,” Pitt for once tried not to be smarter than the character he was interpreting.

Morgan Freeman as a cop who takes on this one last case shortly before retirement also plays the role of the wise companion in “Seven”. He became famous alongside Jessica Tandy in “Driving Miss Daisy” (1990), alongside Kevin Costner in “Robin Hood: King of Thieves” (1991) and alongside Tim Robbins in “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994). In “Seven” you can also hear him as the off-screen narrator, and at the end he quotes Hemingway. Anyone who watches a nature documentary on American television today will always come across Freeman as the narrator. Most recently, Steven Spielberg hired him for his “War of the Worlds” in 2005, in which he explained to the audience how the aliens are literally dying on planet Earth because they never took part in our evolution and they lack the defenses against our bacteria.

Two other actors first became known for their “Seven” roles. Gwyneth Paltrow, who three years later would win the Oscar for Best Female Actress for Shakespeare In Love. And of course Kevin Spacey, who plays the serial killer John Doe. His name didn’t appear in the credits at the beginning of the film, but in 1995 he wasn’t yet popular enough to surprise with his sudden appearance. How ideally Spacey is cast is shown in his first scene. 20 minutes before the end of the film he voluntarily surrenders himself to the police, and he is not a berserker, but really a “John Doe”, an everyman, with an inconspicuous, childlike, smooth and almost motionless face.

Kevin Spacey as “John Doe”

After Anthony Hopkins, who celebrated his Hollywood breakthrough at the age of 54 with “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991), Kevin Spacey, then 36, became probably the most influential actor of the 1990s. Especially as villains, Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter, for example, both became role models thanks to their reduced acting. A year after “Seven,” Spacey would receive his first Oscar, but for the supporting role as Verbal in Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects.”

David Fincher’s rescue

Last but not least, “Seven” was a success for David Fincher; the film probably saved his career. He made a name for himself in the early 1990s as a music video director for lavishly decorated works by Madonna (“Vogue”) and Michael Jackson (“Who Is It”). However, his first movie, “Alien 3,” was a fiasco in 1993. Fincher did not present any new facets of the most famous screen monster, and the work rightly flopped at the box office. Criticized early on as a stylist with no substantive ideas, the then 30-year-old Fincher is said to have gotten the job primarily because of a single suggestion – he wanted to show the iconic “Alien” heroine Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) with a shaved head for the first time. In “Seven,” Fincher combined his aesthetic with a compelling story. As his career progressed, the director even encouraged some actors to give their best performances, such as Edward Norton in “Fight Club” (1999) or Mark Ruffalo and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Zodiac” (2007).

“Seven” ends with a quote, Morgan Freeman says in a voiceover: ‘Ernest Hemingway once wrote: The world is so beautiful and worth fighting for. I agree with the second part.’” The producers of “New Line Cinema” had insisted on the inclusion of these optimistic closing words. Freeman and Fincher responded grumpily to the request.

The quote seems strange in this work – the two seemed to have suspected it. Because there is no hope in the world of “Seven.”

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