So now after my rambling first post, I felt it necessary to post something about a specific movie. This led me to start a category on this blog entitled “Movie Perfection” where I give examples of when a movie seems to do everything exactly right.
I didn’t have to think about it much for my first example and that would be the final act of David Fincher’s 1995 now-classic Seven. And, by final act, I’m referring to everything that happens the moment after a bloody Kevin Spacey shows up at the police station and turns himself in to Detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman).
First, some context to younger readers who may not recall when Seven came out. The movie basically came out of nowhere upon its release. Its director, Fincher, had done one film: 1992’s Alien 3. At the time of that movie’s release, it was critically panned and considered a total inferior product to 1979’s Alien and 1986’s Aliens. Truth be told, it is a much inferior film than its two predecessors, but it’s actually a pretty decent movie if you ask me and it definitely showed that this first-time director had a lot of skill. Brad Pitt was a major movie star by this point and was coming off two giants hits in a row, 1994’s Interview with the Vampire and Legends of the Fall. Morgan Freeman was fresh off Shawshank Redemption. The two leads alone made it a movie to go see, but it didn’t look a whole lot different than your run-of-the-mill serial killer procedural thriller (something like The Bone Collector or Taking Lives or Murder by Numbers that followed in later years and were heavily influenced by the movie I’m talking about).
And, for the first two-thirds of Seven, it is that procedural thriller. It’s just much better than most of the other ones. We get involved in the characters of Mills and Somerset. We are fascinated by this unseen killer who murders according to the Seven Deadly Sins. Most importantly, what sets Seven apart is the direction, its dark look that has been copied over and over since, and how far its willing to go to disturb us (when we discover the manner in which the prostitute was murdered in the S&M club… wow). In a movie that wasn’t as great, the final act would have found Mills and Somerset discovering some convenient clue that led them to the killer and taking him out before he achieves his ultimate goal of completing the seven murders.
However, that is not what screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker had in mind. In nearly all serial killer movies, there’s a “twist”. Usually that “twist” is not that shocking. Sometimes we see it coming a mile away. Sometimes we don’t, but even when we do discover it, it’s not that shocking. When Kevin Spacey’s character walks into that police station and surrenders, it is truly SHOCKING (like Janet Leigh getting killed a half hour into Psycho SHOCKING). Like Charlton Heston seeing the Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes SHOCKING. You don’t see it coming. You don’t understand. At all.
The other thing many younger viewers may not know is that the actor who played the serial killer character was kept completely under wraps before the film was released. Kevin Spacey, in 1995, was regarded as a terrific character actor who had been in a few movies. This was four years before he won an Oscar for American Beauty. It was before L.A. Confidential and Pay It Forward and The Negotiator. He was not a movie star yet. He was, though, coming fresh off another now-classic, The Usual Suspects. That movie was released one month before Seven. It was garnering him Oscar buzz, for which he would end up winning Best Supporting Actor for it that year.
So, when you saw Seven in the theater, not only were you shocked that the SERIAL KILLER WAS TURNING HIMSELF IN (?!?!?!), but equally shocked that the serial killer was Kevin Spacey!! I’ve figured out that by that point, I’d only seen him in three movies: 1992’s brilliant Glengarry Glen Ross, 1994’s comedy The Ref, and 1995’s monkeys-get-everyone-sick thriller Outbreak. To this day, I wish I’d seen Usual Suspects before Seven. I certainly knew who Spacey was at the time, but it would’ve been even cooler to watch Keyser Soze walk through that station.
When Spacey’s character appears, the movie rises to a different and greater level of accomplishment. As an audience, we are totally confused and absolutely on the edge of our seat as to what will happen next.
And… what happens next is all kinds of amazing. It starts with the car ride between the three characters to the location where the serial killer said they must go to solve the case. You’ve all seen the movie (and, by God, if you haven’t… WHY ARE YOU READING THIS???) – so I won’t recite lines, etc… But the dialogue is both tense, surprising, funny, and unsettling. We hear Spacey’s character present his case for why he’s done what he’s done. There are times during the scene when you think like Pitt’s character thinks – this guy’s just a complete wack job. What the hell kind of a brilliant scheme is he talking about that people will puzzle over? Yeah right…
When the characters reach their destination, I remember being literally hunched over in the theater. I simply had no idea what was going to happen next. How many times can you say that when watching a movie? Where you truly have no clue what is going to take place next and the suspense is killing you to find out?
The delivery truck driver. Oh, the delivery truck driver!! Remember watching that for the first time?? Edge-of-your-seat.
A box is delivered by the scared driver. What on Earth could possibly be in there??? That’s what Morgan Freeman is thinking too. He has no idea. WE HAVE NO IDEA!!
The conversation between Spacey and Pitt juxtaposed with Freeman opening the box. We figure out what’s in the box. We figure out that Spacey has fulfilled the sixth of the seven murders. Our heart breaks by the discovery of what that sixth murder is. It dawns on us that the seventh murder must come from Pitt’s character in order for Spacey’s wishes to come true. We see Pitt discover that his wife was pregnant, which leads to one of the most memorable moments in this film or any film… Spacey’s surprised reaction to Pitt’s reaction… “Oh, he didn’t know!”
At this moment, as an audience, we are practically drained from everything that’s occurred in the last three minutes. We know that by Pitt shooting Spacey, it gives the serial killer exactly what he truly wants. It completes his set of murders. It gives him a victory. At the same time, how can Pitt not just blast him in the head??? And he does, but just before Spacey closes his eyes with a serene look on his face. He’s accomplished his goal.
I’ve never seen a movie where you literally felt like you got punched in the gut when the credits start to roll. Except Seven. It’s an absolute masterful final act that catches us off-guard and makes us completely tense. We stay that way for about the last 30 minutes of the movie! When I saw Seven in a crowded theater, there were a lot of people who didn’t even move for several minutes when the credits started rolling. I don’t think they could. They were still trying to process what happened.
Since 1995, I’ve watched Seven a number of times. The emotions I’ve described in that final act? I still get them watching it today. It’s movie making at its highest level. Its most visceral level. Movie perfection.