A review requested by Mike Gibson, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

I shall start with a personal anecdote, since who doesn't love personal anecdotes from nominally objective arts critics? But "a man goes to the movies. The critic must be honest enough to admit that he is that man." And when the man now writing was a good deal younger - a boy, really, though I mightn't have thought it at the time, all of 18 and new to college - he saw for the first and until very recently the only time, David Fincher's 1995 breakthrough Se7en, the film with which that music video director proved that, absent the clusterfuck of studio intervention that made Alien³ such an unimpressive feature debut, he had the stylistic chops and tight control of tone required to be a Real Auteur. And upon this first viewing of Se7en, Wee Young Timmy Brayton was absolutely flattened - just so damn thoroughly unnerved and wrecked by it that, for 14 years and change, it was the one and only title on my list of movies So Good I Can Only Bear to Watch It Once. Now, obviously, the film's not that extreme, and in the intervening decade, I've watched many films that are far more punishing in every way, and for some years now, I've supposed that in this case, memory was exaggerating the titanic dreadfulness of how cruel and unabating the film was, and of course that turns out to be the case. Still, the point remains: it takes a hell of a movie to trigger that kind of response. And yes, Se7en is absolutely a hell of a movie - and a movie of Hell, I might idly throw out there, if I wanted to engage in feeble wordplay.

The film's impact has been seismic; along with The Silence of the Lambs, four years earlier, and maybe we could argue TV's The X-Files, which premiered in 1993, it's one of the creative works in what we might, for want of a clear term, call the Horror Cop genre: police procedurals which appropriate all they can from the gore and terror-driven horror genre (a genre that was, I suspect not coincidentally, in abeyance in the first half of the 1990s), to the point that they start to blur definitional lines. The Silence of the Lambs, I think, is a horror film; Se7en, ultimately, probably isn't, but it's right there. And though these two films are, by themselves, almost the entire history of this experimental subgenre, their influence has been felt absolutely everywhere in the two decades since the latter film's premiere - Holy Mother of all things sacred, Se7en is 20 years old, when the fuck did that happen? - in less pure form. Take some of the horror back out, and you have the glut of TV procedurals in which grim-faced cops sorrowfully poke at the most hellaciously violent and often sexualised crimes, depicted with all the brio that standards and practices will permit. Go the other way, and lump in enough horror that it's impossible to deny that's what's going on, and you basically have Saw (a film whose aesthetic does not at all hide its theft from Se7en) and all its little torture porn offspring.

That's a pretty shoddy legacy, but let's not permit it to devalue Fincher's great achievement in anyway, which after 20 years - 20 fucking years - and countless copycats, hasn't lost any of its unnerving, devastating nihilistic power. It is a cruel, bitter movie, undoubtedly the film that most plainly expresses the theme common to all of Fincher's work, that humans are basically prone to cruelty and stupidity, and all decent people can do is try to not give into that impulse. And one may or may not respond to the bleakness and nihilism of that message - and if any English-language film can be confidentally described as "nihilistic", it's Se7en - but it's impossible to deny the potency and artistry with which Fincher and company execute it here. I do not hide my frequent lack of affection for the director's work, but this is a great piece of cinema, the kind that works on such a visceral, primal level to communicate its thoughts and feelings that quibbling with it like pissing in the wind. It is a powerful, brutalising thing, and maybe the most totally successful thing Fincher has directed; alongside Zodiac (which I'd call his best movie; it's also probably his most clinically intellectual), it suggests that whatever he does, Fincher should probably always make movies about serial killers.

The plot of the film, inspired by screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker's miserable stretch of time living in New York (it's a bit remarkable how not at all impressive Walker's subsequent career has been, when he's every bit as important for the film's impact as the director), is straightforward enough: in an unnamed city where it almost always seems to be raining, and which ends up even filthy after the rain than before it, Detective Lieutenant Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is in the last week of his employ with the police department, and is to spend the next seven days (the title has a double meaning!) showing the ropes to new transfer Detective Mills (Brad Pitt), who is more or less going to end up his replacement. On day #1, they find an appalling murder scene, where a man was tortured to death by being forced at gunpoint to eat till he burst; this turns out to be the first in a series of killings inspired by the seven deadly sins - gluttony, lust, wrath, sloth, pride, envy, and greed. As the two men investigate, the gulf between their respective worldviews begins to inform everything about how they respond to the ugliness and savagery of these crimes: Mills's conviction that right will out, and that the universe favors justice drives him towards passionate anger, while Somerset's work-honed certitude that there is more wickedness than the good people of the world can ever hope to combat leaves him doggedly pursuing clues with a detachment that's like depression, if only depression could somehow be even sadder.

The actual meat of the film is pretty easily gotten through; the content, for the most part, is a more or less literal tour of Hell. Not for nothing does the film heavily emphasise Dante's Inferno: like that poem, Se7en functions as a story of one wise old man guiding a younger, more optimistic soul through several tableaux vividly demonstrating the consequences of worldly sin. The difference being that, in Dante, the sins are against God, while in Se7en, they are punished only by one deeply broken human, played by - is a 20-year-old movie still covered by spoiler alerts? Because it's a huge spoiler - Kevin Spacey in the best work of his career, granite-faced as he spits out his bile in brittle, inhuman tones. There is definitely no God in the universe of Se7en; only psychopaths. And instead of the message "these are the punishments you might face if you misbehave", the lesson is the infinitely bleaker "these are the punishments you might face for having the misfortune to have been born".

Walker's script is insistently symbolic without being overbearing about it, and it's surprisingly willing to stop the narrative development entirely to favor scenes of the two leads talking about morality and philosophy, but the thing never drags. A lot of credit for both of these things must go to Freeman and Pitt, who might fall into the ordinary "sagacious black cop/fiery white cop" dynamic, but build such extreme personality into the parts that everything they say and do feels far more an extension of character than the requirement of the screenplay (it might be my favorite Freeman performance; it is, anyway, the one where he engages with his then-nascent "wise old black man calmly intoning advice" persona in the most interestingly off-kilter ways). And certainly, the quality of the filmmaking is at an extraordinary level: beyond Fincher's direction, there is the matter of Howard Shore's erratic, scraping score, Darius Khondji's cinematography, with its overtones of infection and dessication, and Richard Francis-Bruce's tightly controlled editing, all slow build-up to explosions.

It's an absolutely top-shelf thriller first and foremost; a movie that uses its nervy central gimmick as a great spine to pose the question, "so what happens next?" before plunging us through one of the most raw-nerve mysteries of its decade. The film is propulsive in the exactly the same gestures that it's nauseating and distressing. Hell, that's basically the thesis statement presented in the film's enormously influential opening credits, which combine punchy cutting and a thick visual sense of moral rot and so set the entire film off on the footing it will pursue forever after. Exciting on the one hand; immensely unpleasant on the other. It is a desperately involving and watchable film for something so absolutely starved of joy; it makes the expression of total nihilism vividly cinematic in a way that no other American film I can immediately call to mind has ever even attempted. It is not the kind of film I can honestly say that I could love, let alone do love; but I don't suppose I could possibly admire it any more than I do, for its absolute commitment to tone and the excellence of its construction in every scene and every frame.