The Number One Movie in America: Se7en
By Sean Collier
December 26, 2020
David Fincher’s “Se7en” is a pitch-black thriller with a conclusion so unbelievably bleak that it only made it to the screen accidentally.
Seriously: New Line Cinema had instantly rejected the film’s famous ending, which we will refer to here only as “what’s in the box” for the uninitiated, and demanded that screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker turn in another draft with a more conventional action sequence wrapping up the film. Reluctantly, Walker agreed and submitted a far less remarkable, but much more palatable, final act.
Then, New Line accidentally sent David Fincher the old copy.
Fincher, still reeling from the response to “Alien 3,” was reluctant to take on any large projects at the time. But he was so impressed with Walker’s (original) script that he agreed. It was not until later in the process that the error was caught; when New Line tried to push the new ending, Fincher threatened to leave the project if they didn’t go with “what’s in the box.” Brad Pitt joined him in demanding the old ending stay, and New Line folded.
And the word-of-mouth, despite that theoretically audience-crushing finale, was so strong that “Se7en” remained on top of the box office for four consecutive weekends.
To be fair to New Line, a lot of “Se7en” shouldn’t work. It’s dark — both figuratively and literally — with a deliberately oppressive, frustrating soundscape. A number of its scenes and sequences are deliberately off-putting, wallowing in Cronenberg-level gross-out effects. And yes, the subject matter (and the way it concludes) is so doggedly nihilistic that any studio head would likely tell you that this film wasn’t going to make money.
Yet — because Fincher was at the height of his powers and he had a remarkable pair of leads — it was not only a hit, but a dominant one. Released in September (during the era where that month was a bit of a dumping ground), “Se7en” won its first weekend with $13.9 million, besting “Showgirls,” the endlessly discussed but ultimately unsuccessful mainstream soft-core flick. (The second-place finish of “Showgirls” remains the single biggest weekend ever for a film rated NC-17, but that’s a column for another day.)
“Se7en” would finish in first place for a full month, holding off debuts including “Devil in a Blue Dress,” “Halloween 6” and “Dead Presidents.” None of the films that debuted that month were exactly tentpoles, but still: This black-as-night thriller held them all off and reigned over the multiplex for a full month simply by virtue of being very good.
And yes, it is very good — if you can handle it. Pitt and Morgan Freeman are at their best, as is the unnamed (and later disgraced) performer who emerges as the surprise bad guy. The structure of the narrative is dense but its beats are deliberate, making for a viewing experience that’s hypnotic on first viewing and only deepens on subsequent watches.
With a final total just passing the $100 million mark, there were likely quite a few people buying more than one ticket to see “Se7en.” In some cases, letting a director and screenwriter call all the shots can backfire and lead to an indulgent mess; in other cases, it is exactly what a film needs. “Se7en” is just that sort of film, one that triumphs because of its idiosyncrasies, not in spite of them.
How big was “Se7en” that year? It beat “Clueless” to win the MTV Movie Award for Best Movie. Picture it. It’d be like Adele losing a Grammy to Captain Beefheart.
“Se7en” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since 1977. Please listen and subscribe!
Next time: A far-fetched American action-fantasy that is nevertheless much more believable than contemporary American politics.