David Fincher’s flawless crime masterpiece, Se7en, is filled with many a thrilling sequence. The revelatory chase through the crummy apartment complex, the cross-cutting police interrogation of the sleazy porn dungeon owner and its remarkably disturbed client, the discovery of what hundreds of air fresheners are concealing, the “WHAT WAS IN THE BOX WHAT WAS IN THE BOOOX?!”, the reveal of John Doe and his bloodied fingers, and on and on.
But, for me, the film produces no better, more effective thrill than when Detectives David Mills (Brad Pitt) and William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) discover the clue hidden behind Doe’s GREED killing.
“Clue” may not be accurate. More like tease, or ultimate fuck with. A brilliant, Hey, I’m smarter than you, catch me if you can.
To backtrack. After Somerset convinces Mills and their superior that they have a nutjob killing people according to the seven deadly sins, Mills hesitantly embraces Somerset’s intellect by inviting him to help solve the case. Several thoroughly detailed, and wholly essential sequences take place (because really, there’s nothing shown in Se7en that isn’t necessary for something later in the film), before Somerset and Mills realize that something is off about the GREED murder, in which a crooked lawyer was stabbed to death in his fancy office.
The detectives eventually show the lawyer’s grieving wife photos from the crime scene (in which the gory details of her husband’s newly deceased body are amusingly covered in Post-It notes), and she soon spots an abstract painting on the wall hanging upside down. Mills and Somerset go to the lawyer’s office and take the painting off the wall. Nothing. They set it on the ground and examine the back of the artwork. Nothing. Somerset removes the brown paper from the back of the painting. Nothing. “There, must, be, something,” Somerset quietly mummers. Mills makes jokes of frustration, angered by the killer’s obvious enjoyment. Somerset jumps on the table below where the painting hung, he gets out a pocket-sized fingerprint kit, and then it all clicks.
We brilliantly, historically, exceptionally jump cut from Freeman’s inquisitive face to the same wall in extreme close-up, brightened by neon blue lights. A lab tech blows white powder away with a can of air. “Oh…man,” the tech says.
We cut to Pitt and Freeman, who are staring at the wall from a few feet away. Pitt turns away, framing the shot in a Persona-esque two-shot. And then we’re privy to the very best line deliveries of both Pitt and Freeman’s careers.
“Honestly,” Pitt whispers, “Have you ever seen anything like this?” The camera pulls focus to Freeman, and after the briefest of moments, Freeman offers a stunning, “No.”
Pitt looks back at the wall, and all is revealed – HELP ME has been crudely written with fingerprints (which aren’t even the lawyer’s, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)
I was 12 the first time I saw Se7en, and up until this point in the film, I was convinced that I was watching a glorified episode of Law and Order. But when this scene occurred (which, if I haven’t made myself clear, is arguably the smartest sequence I’ve ever seen in a police procedural film), I knew I was in for something different; something that had no interest in cutting corners or making things easy for its audience.
I love Brad Pitt and I love Morgan Freeman, but their respective performances in Se7en have yet to be met by anything else they’ve done. This scene, I feel, is reason enough for that argument.
Other installments of My Favorite Scene include: