David Fincher’s Se7en is one of my favorite films of all time. Now that Fincher’s work has been accepted into the vaunted ranks of the Criterion Collection, I have no shame admitting my love for the director’s high-concept thriller (all though, truthfully, I didn’t like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button very much and I wasn’t waiting around for Criterion to anoint Fincher, their mark of approval just adds another piece to the argument for his status as a great director). Few films get as much right as Se7en does, but it is often penalized for its influence: the quick cuts and gritty industrial style it imbued into the thriller genre*.
There are many films that have mistreated the stylistic tools Fincher made famous (Suspect Zero, The Bone Collector, 8MM, Taking Lives, the list goes on), there are few films from the post-Se7en world that make fine use of Fincher’s influence–or at very least bear similar stylistic and thematic concerns at heart.
Pi – Darren Aronofsky – 1998
Though Pi shares few visuals touches with Se7en, the music video-style quick cuts and occasional use of shaky-cam create a similar effect of psychological dread and anxiety. While Pi deals in far more surreal images and theoretical content, the overall feel of the film’s editing is similar to Se7en’s in its ability to make even overly talky scenes seem dynamic. Director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler) made use of quick cuts to great effect in both this and 2000’s Requiem for a Dream as a tool for displaying procedure in psychologically unsound lives.
The Machinist – Brad Andersen – 2004
Like Pi, Brad Andersen’s The Machinist uses the grit of Se7en to portray the mental breakdown of an insomniac. While its disjoint narrative has more in common with Memento or a Tarantino film, Andersen (Transsiberian, Session 9) fills his film with the same urban decay and graying palette that color Fincher’s perpetually rainy metropolis.
The Cell – Tarsem – 2000
Though it is difficult to defend the content of The Cell as original, it is hard to deny the novelty and breathtakingly unique style of director Tarsem’s visuals. While the film does not borrow much stylistically from Se7en–Tarsem, a commercial director, does favor a cutting style similar to that of Fincher’s film–it does recall some of Se7en’s serial-killer philosophizing. It is more concerned with transformation obsession of Thomas Harris’ villains (Vincent D’Onofrio’s killer is straight out of Silence of the Lambs or Red Dragon). If anything, it is not so much stylistically indebted to Se7en as it is a product of a post-Se7en world in which a strange, visually inventive project like this could be made into a real Hollywood film starring Jennifer Lopez. Worth viewing for the visuals and a fascinating, of ultimately unfulfilling, portrait of a serial killer.
Saw – James Wan – 2004
This one needs very little introduction. Saw at times feels like Se7en fan fiction, as if director James Wan returned to Fincher’s rainy city from Se7en years later to show us that there are still self-righteous serial killers roaming its streets. The dirty, dark visuals, the seedy, decaying settings, the quick cuts, the mental breakdown of a police officer, the serial killer with a moral bent–Wan’s film takes a number of major cues from Se7en. Where it differs, of course, is in the unrepentant and unmitigated levels of gore. While subsequent Saws would increase the gore factor considerably (and films like the Hostel series and the superior French work Martyrs would up the ante in the gore department), the first Saw eliminated all the bits in Se7en during which you were forced to imagine the horror. Director James Wan gave you the guts full bore. While Saw was by no means as inventive or gripping as Se7en, it had just enough grit and intrigue to hold my attention. The subsequent films, of course, are a continuing string of increasingly boring and convoluted atrocities–profitable atrocities, but atrocities nonetheless.
BONUS: As far as entertaining serial killer/police procedurals go, Fallen is routinely overlooked. Criminally overlooked. A very enjoyable movie for a rainy night. I won’t quite say it’s indebted to Se7en, but its 1998 release date puts it right in the post-Se7en world, so at some point an executive probably said “Hey, this could be the next Se7en!” Or perhaps the writer pitched it as “Se7en. But instead of Kevin Spacey, the killer’s an evil spirit that jumps in between people’s bodies.” I’m sold.
*I realize that quick cuts and grit are not Fincher-specific aesthetic devices. You can find the influence of any number of directors in the films on this list. Se7en happens to be a particular benchmark in terms of presenting a number of stylistic elements that would become popular soon after and doing this in an enormously successful vessel. Silence of the Lambs could be equally noted as the usurer of thriller style, but I chose Se7en for the above reasons–Silence was a critical and financial success, but Se7en molded a landscape. And, as I mention above, it’s doubtful that films like The Cell or Suspect Zero ever get discussed, much less made.