David Fincher - Se7en (1995)

[se7en] The birth of the definitive serial killer thriller can be traced as far back as Fritz Lang's M, if not to its predecessor, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. Both pieces incorporate a progression of lost innocence coupled with one of arbitrary dictates (the killer's "motives") that become hallmarks of their present day inheritors. Also present (a variant of the stolen innocence motif) is a fear of learning, or at least of the learned—Caligari is a doctor, a psychiatrist, as is Hannibal Lector/Lektor, in both respects.

Peter Lorre not playing a doctor, or a murderer of similar effect, I will treat M tersely: a serial killer in Germany murders child after child, the police and even the mob (the former to some degree coercing the latter) endeavor to find him, he is recognized by the tune he whistles throughout ("In the Hall of the Mountain King") and marked, in chalk, with the single letter M, before being trailed, apprehended and put on "trial" by the townsmen. The significance (or a significance) is in Lorre's branding: first by a mark of culture in himself ("The Mountain King"), later by the townspeople, who denote him as killer via text (M).

The serial killer inspires fear in a twofold manner. First, he is arbitrary/unseen; in essence unknown. Secondly, he is intelligent (and normally a he, and white, and between 18 and 35). The power of the serial killer character lies not in his money or his arsenal; it lies in his mental capacity, which generically exceeds that of the pursuant hero.

Caligari and the Lector movies (Manhunter and The Silence of the Lambs) condense the two: the psychiatrist killer is smarter than the pursuant hero because he is capable of understanding his own motives. The hero can't guess this killer's second move, but he, for his part, already knows the second and fourth and eighth moves of both parties. More than a fear of the unknown, a fear of manipulation is played upon. The killer becomes a microcosmic God (exercising the fantasy of control), against whom the hero can only rebel. A merging of identities occurs, as well: the psychiatrist killer, like his pursuer, is well-practiced in dealing with the mentally ill as an objective superior; the hero will try to assume this role towards (like any other killer) his psychiatrist object, only to have it backfire, the latter's knowledge and hence command of power being in the greater amount.

In Seven and Fallen the intelligence of the killer obtains an academic tone, and the arbitrary pathological motive becomes one of dire mission; the two fears are interwoven not in the character, but in the movie itself. While Kevin Spacey's John Doe is well read, the attention is self-reflexively shifted to the screenwriter (Kevin Andrew Walker). This is due in part to the awareness to form, both nominal (the title derived from what should have been divisions of the movie, and the film's triumph in re-attaining that formal symmetry at the expense of its characters) and diegetic (the library sequences contextualize the film, placing it into the company of Dante, Milton and Chaucer, no less—and then there is always Detective William Somerset's name). Through lighting techniques and the opening/closing credits an atmosphere simultaneously aesthetic and intimidating (and at times a bit overwhelming) is established, simulating the powered/powerless relationship not on the level of character-to-character, but on the level of medium.

Fallen takes the dissolution of character one step further, with an adherent increase in academicism. The killer, Azazel, is not played by a single actor, hence not locatable as a person. "He" is to be found in books, records, legends, traditions. The apocryphal nature of his history is deliberate; the record at best is a hazarded guess, the first man to find his name (Hobbes' (another black detective named after a dead Brit) predecessor) conceals that knowledge. The question of what can kill Azazel is less answered than that of what he is, neither being explicitly or comprehensively addressed by the film, which is itself only another installment in a series of apocrypha. The impotence/indiscerniblility is expanded from the drome of world to the drome of cosmos; "somethings can only be accounted for if one presupposed the existence of a God." The presupposition is made in the interests of accountability, which is the resort of the powerless (seeking to pin blame). Fallen's act of taking the accountability from the godly (as in Seven) to the gods (Azazel) is somehow more horrible, because the power differential is then both more natural (being deigned so by God) and irrevocable (ditto).

Intelligence then presents its audience with a sense of powerlessness, godlike in its own empowerment, which academic or intellectualism can make arbitrary, but no straight chaos-in-randomness, but an informed arbitrariness, which one might stumble into and discover to have a logic and an order of its own. More than the fear of being hacked to bits, a fear of natural powerlessness due to natural inferiority in the presence of natural superiority makes one question (and doubt?) the order of the world, the right in it, and wonder whether or not it can be unwronged.

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