Dir: David Fincher
Star: Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kevin Spacey
As we approach the thirtieth anniversary of this, it’s interesting to see where those involved have gone. Freeman is likely the least changed since. Pitt has become a decent actor rather than a clothes-horse, even if his performance here was clearly a work in progress, as the finale obviously demonstrates (“What’s in the box? WHAT’S IN THE BOX!!!?!?”). Paltrow is selling vagina-scented candles. Spacey turned out not just to be playing a creepy predator. But it’s perhaps Fincher who “needed” the film most, after the disaster across the board which was Alien 3. This proved his chops as a serious director, and established the dark, heavy tone which has characterized much of his career since.
Indeed, it’s arguably characterized much of the genre since, to the extent that a lot of what we get here now feels clichéd. Oh, look: a perpetually under-lit and rainy metropolis, where evil lurks behind every corner. Even the title sequence seems to be copied by every other movie about a serial killer. It’s difficult to remember how novel this all was at the time, and also how generating atmosphere is not just a case of turning the brightness down, as annoyingly too many film-makers since seem to think. Right from the start, this lays heavily on the viewer, with a tone as consistently oppressive as the weather in the unnamed city, where John Doe (Spacey) is committing murders which punish the Seven Deadly Sins.
Seeking to hunt him down is grizzled veteran cop William Somerset (Freeman), a week from retirement, who is tired of… well, everything, for Somerset is basically the prototype for every Nordic noir detective. His partner is David Mills (Pitt), newly arrived in the unnamed city, full of idealism which, it’s abundantly clear, will not make it through the weekend. For Doe has a plan, and a moral philosophy which seems curiously appealing in some ways. “We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it’s common, it’s trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon, and night. Well, not anymore.” #JohnDoeForPresident. Hey, are you telling me he wouldn’t be an improvement over recent occupants of the office?
While the impact here has certainly been diluted by the volume of lesser imitators during the intervening years, it still definitely has its moments. Even knowing in advance, the Sloth victim is probably the one which you’ll remember most, and I do have to say, the last couple (Lust and Pride) really seem like John Doe was half-assing them in comparison. Felt as if he suddenly discovered a homework assignment was due the next day. However, once he shows up and demands to be arrested, the whole thing ramps up a notch, and knowing what we do now about Spacey the man, only enhances the sense of your flesh crawling. If ever there was a film which has often been imitated, but rarely matched, this might be it.