Sirens. We hear the city before we see the detective. He’s getting ready for the day and that means coffee. By the time he’s in front of the mirror the noise from his neighbours, their television and the cacophony of traffic outside form a dull roar. From the dresser he pauses to pick up the three objects that presently define him; a badge, a switchblade and a pen. Next to them, on a clean handkerchief, rests an old worn piece of wallpaper depicting a rose and hopefully his future. He picks up his jacket, already laid out on the made bed, but only after removing a small speck from its breast. He reaches past the metronome at the side of his bed and clicks off the lamp.
Less than a minute in to David Fincher’s SE7EN and we already know an awful lot about Lt. Detective William R Somerset. Three minutes later and we’ll know even more. And then the movie proper can begin.
There’s something fascinating about these scenes that act as prelude to a movie. They exist pre-credits for a reason, a cold opening that drops us straight out of the theatre and into the thing. In some cases they become as important in their own right as the movie that follows. CASINO ROYALE, for example, not only adds an exemplary pre-credit action sequence to an already iconic roster, but acts as the best possible introduction to that Bond. A rougher, blunter instrument than we’re used to who runs through walls and uses his rib cage to break falls. When faced with defeat he doesn’t dig deep, but rather thinks on his feet. Fuck it, I’ll just blow us all up or Fuck this being polite I’m gonna grab this piece of cutlery and jam it into your neck if you dare try and outsmart me. But I digress… (go see SKYFALL).
SE7EN’s opening is perfect. It’s become overshadowed by the credits sequence that follows (redefining as it did an entire industry) and the crimes themselves (that inadvertently launched a sub-genre of lesser movies), unfolding over seven days that eventually lead to a box that should never be opened. But for me, the entirety of the move is found in the first four minutes and those four scenes that hold our hand as we sit in the darkness and enter what Fincher describes as the ‘belly of the beast‘; Somerset’s unnamed city.
The Removed Scene
Prior to us meeting him that morning Somerset had recently returned from a trip to the countryside and the home he intends to move to in a week’s time. It’s there he finds the old wallpaper that he now carries a piece of as a token of escape, but also a trophy and a totem. We don’t know this though. The sequence was shot, but later cut. You can listen to the director and cast commentary on the Criterion disk of the movie to find out why. It’s also detailed on the movie’s Wikipedia page. But the flower is important. Most cop movies dwell on the guns. Here the cop carries a rose and a switchblade.
Our first crime scene. That’s the writer of the screenplay lying in his own blood, but you don’t need to know that. I smile every time I see his ass which isn’t a sentence I type lightly, but it is true. Face down in his own world made real – you know he’s smiling too. The police already on the scene have this covered, but it’s an opportunity for Morgan Freeman to deliver his first line and it’s a beauty.
Then they heard the gun go off. Both barrels.
A crime of passion.
Yeah, just look at all the passion on that wall.
His subsequent question about a child shows just how at odds he is with his fellow police officers. He sees things that they don’t because he goes looking for them. No one else cares. He’s world weary and his response is to save what’s left of his life and get out of the damn city. The most interesting character in a parallel universe in a similar position is meanwhile setting up a custom search-light and handing the job over to a troubled man who dresses as a rodent. I’d rather stick with Somerset. We also see the detective for the first time in his hat. Vital, as Morgan Freeman explains:
“Primarily it’s just a rain hat, but it’s one of those things that I find always informs me. Very often if a character can wear a hat a hat will identify him, will give you the last little… well, tie the knot in the thread. This is one of those situations where the hat sort of [CLICK] there it is. That’s him. Put the hat on and you look and you see the character. And you know who he is.”
Its in this scene that (the hatless) Detective David Mills arrives. And cut.
We’re outside. It’s raining. It always rains here. If you haven’t already then go take a look at a book by Warren Ellis called FELL. Imagine a map of places that you never want to find yourself then trace your finger over an invisible line between Somerset’s city and Richard Fell’s Snowtown. Feral cities, twinned. Now go and wash your hand.
We begin to understand Mills as in one moment he takes in a passing woman under her umbrella and in the next pauses to angrily watch the retreating form of a man that has roughly pushed past him. In another excised sequence we would have seen Mills get into some shit with two thugs the night before* and seen the rashness in him there. Here instead, and in a fraction of the time, we see him let his anger go. You’ve seen the end of the movie, right? This is important.
Fincher makes a decision to abandon coverage and allow the two actors to walk and talk, ‘go toe to toe‘. Apparently it took something like 27 takes. It’s perhaps the most vital part of SE7EN for me and represents the last opportunity for hope in the movie. From the question that forms the title of this blog entry we’re less than two minutes from the opening credits yet by the time we first hear Nine Inch Nails the path of the movie is irrevocably set.
Look, Mills? I thought we might find a bar someplace,
you know and sit and talk…
Well I’d like to get to the precinct if it’s all the same. You
know, not much time for this transition thing.
I meant to ask you something. When we spoke on the
I don’t follow.
Well, all this effort to get transferred. It’s the first question
that popped into my head.
I guess the same reasons as you. The same reasons you had
before you decided to quit. Yeah?
You’ve just met me.
Maybe I’m not understanding the question.
It’s very simple. You actually fought to get reassigned here.
I’ve just never seen it done that way before.
I thought I could do some good. Look, it would be great for me
if we didn’t start out kicking each other in the balls. But you’re
calling the shots, lieutenant.
Yes. I want you to look and I want you to listen. Okay?
Now I wasn’t standing around guarding the Taco Bell, I’ve
worked Homicide five years.
I understand that.
Well over the next seven days, detective, you’ll do me the favour
of remembering that.
So much information thrown at the audience here. Mills is new to the city while Somerset is about to start his final week. Seven days. That’s the time frame that destroys them. By the time Somerset not only remembers his partner’s name and actually calls him David it’s far too late. LETHAL WEAPON this is not (or perhaps it is but only if you ever wanted to take Gibson’s suicidal cop with a murdered wife to a more logical conclusion than a martial arts bout in the rain).
The city is a place you get out of or die in. Somerset lives alone with a fucking chess set. He’s not married and has no family here. Mills has brought his with him. One of many mistakes that Mills makes is not understanding what Somerset means when he says, ‘Not here‘. He’s not implying that police work here is different. He’s stating that the city itself is different. Unlike anything Mills has ever experienced. But this conversation wasn’t supposed to take place here. Somerset wanted to take his partner to a bar. Talk. Mills, not a great listener, shoves the idea aside.
And that’s him turning his back on hope.
Maybe if he’d dropped a gear and spent a day drinking and chatting with his new partner things would have unfolded differently. We’re not in the film yet. Monday only flashes up after the credits. They don’t have a case yet. They don’t have the case yet.
There’s time here, detective. You should have taken it.
Don’t panic. We’re almost there.
Night. Somerset is back in his apartment, in bed and trying to read. The noise from the morning continues unabated into the night. Defeated, he places his glasses on the night stand and sets the metronome running at a calming 66 beats per minute. Freeman explains that the character here finds it difficult to shut his mind down at night, “It’s like putting a clock in bed with puppies“. I’m writing this at 5am and buying a metronome app the moment I hit PUBLISH. A battle between the continuous pulse of the city and the beat in the room begins. It’s the regular calming voice of the metronome that finally leads Somerset into sleep and the audience into the credits. Before the end of the week the metronome will be shattered across the floor.
The city always wins in the end.
All that and I didn’t mention John Doe once.
*This excised scene is eventually realised to comedic effect in HOT FUZZ, much more of a sibling to SE7EN than any of the SAW movies or the torture-porn bollocks that followed**
**Sorry for the foot notes