EH: You're right that we have come to agree by disagreeing here. I don't see what you identify as the “narrative gimmicks” in Fincher's earlier films as necessarily opposed to the “deeper” themes I'm talking about. In other words—and you do acknowledge this—it needn't be an either/or proposition. I'd go even further and say that in Fincher's best work, the surface-level aesthetics and narrative devices reinforce rather than obscure what's underneath. The twists in The Game and Fight Club might be narrative smoke-and-mirrors, ways of playing with the audience, but they're also destabilizing techniques that dramatize and visualize the inner conflicts of the protagonists. To use your example, I don't think No Country for Old Men would be worth much if it was just a film about a guy on the run from a coin-flipping hitman; it's a great film because its story reflects the themes of fate, justice and history that the Coens are interested in there. The same is true of Fincher: his narrative devices resonate with the themes I'm talking about.
So obviously, I wouldn't be as reluctant as you to attribute the subtextual content of these films to Fincher himself. True, he has never written one of his own scripts, but at the very least, he chooses his material, and he chooses how to interpret it: what to emphasize, what to play down, how to shoot each scene. I've been writing about Howard Hawks a lot recently, and a comparison between Fincher and the classical Hollywood auteurs seems especially apt. Hawks rarely wrote his own scripts, and unlike Fincher he also often worked on studio assignments that he might not have chosen for himself. Yet it is undeniable that Hawks' films have a consistent worldview, a consistent set of themes and ideas—and the aesthetic means for expressing these subtexts. This is less common today, when the majority of directors seem to be either personal artists working with some level of relative independence, or straightforwardly commercial entertainers. Fincher, though, like Paul Verhoeven, is among a few current filmmakers who fit the kind of auteurist model applied to directors like Hawks, Anthony Mann, or George Cukor, all of whom brought their personal artistry and signature concerns to a variety of mainstream entertainments. Which is not to say that Fincher is on that level of achievement, or that his work is as diverse as theirs often was: he has a narrower range of material. But he's nevertheless bringing a personal slant, and personal themes, to blockbuster material. If Fincher's films were more thematically diverse or indifferently chosen, I probably wouldn't be tempted to read much into the arc of his career as a whole, but his choices have indicated a fairly stable sensibility. He may not be the writer of these films, but he is most definitely the author.
That said, I like the way you've been grappling with what I'd consider one of the most important questions concerning Fincher: the ways in which style and substance interact within his work. We've been talking about this basic issue in various guises, among them the relationship between narrative and thematic subtext, or the status of the director as simultaneously a personal artist and a Hollywood entertainer. This might be a good point at which to segue from our discussion of Fincher in general into a closer look at his individual films, while keeping these questions on the table. And there is little doubt in my mind that Se7en is his most complex and conflicted film in terms of the style/substance debate. It's a serial killer movie in which the mysterious John Doe (Kevin Spacey) commits a series of grisly murders, while being tracked by detectives Mills (Brad Pitt) and Somerset (Morgan Freeman). But I'd submit that the film's perspective on these events is much more complicated than it is in the typical serial killer thriller: it is by no means always clear what Fincher means for us to think about the killer or his crimes, or for that matter about the cops and their tactics for finding their target. Moreover, the film has a schematic, seemingly rigid structure that then begins to loosen up (or even unravel) towards the denouement, a descent into chaos and confusion that winds up being as profound and affecting for the audience as it is for the protagonists.
JB: Se7en is indeed a film that sneaks up on the viewer. As you suggest, the structure is so seemingly rigid that it suckers us in. To watch it for the first time is to be overcome trying to puzzle out the riddle. I love John Doe's monologue in the back of the squad car because Spacey nails it (in a role he'd never be offered now) and because it's a tease—foreplay when we're aching for climax. Somerset has that great line: “If John Doe's head splits open and a UFO should fly out, I want you to have expected it.” At that point, a UFO seems plausible. We're on edge. And so about 15 beautifully agonizing minutes later, when we find out what's in the box, there are two shocks: the first is purely structural, an answer to the riddle; the second is the realization that, fuck, we're smack in the middle of an ethics exercise and Mills' gun might as well be in our hand. It's a delicious moment, and evident therein is the quandary that dominates this year's The Dark Knight: when is it excusable, or even proper, to violate the law (criminal or societal) for the greater good?
But what I find most intriguing is the film's suggestion that knowledge is a hindrance. In Somerset we have a scholarly man who is defaulted to look deeper and see more. He realizes instantaneously that the murders are part of a larger act, and beyond that he realizes that John Doe's “masterpiece” is part of an even more enormous evil. And it paralyzes him. Somerset tries to tell himself that he doesn't care, but in reality he cares too much. Meanwhile there's Mills, all hopped up on testosterone, driven not by his intellect but by his gut. He can't slow down enough to see the big picture without Somerset's help, and yet he's the man of action, right down to the very end. Se7en tells me that I could sit here and think about the food in my refrigerator that's past its expiration date, while around the world so many people starve, and I could think about this laptop on which I'm writing respectively frivolous thoughts about art, while so many people live without shelter, but all that would achieve is the desire to get on the floor and curl up in the fetal position. Instead, the subtext implies, I'm more apt to make a difference if I think less and react to what's in front of me. (Fight Club explores this idea too, albeit in a contradictory way.) It's a disquieting argument that's as subtly executed as it is powerfully felt.
EH: What you're getting at here is precisely what I find so simultaneously confounding and fascinating about this film: its engagement with such dark and morally complex themes, and its willingness to blur the line between good and evil. In many ways, the film and its director are on the side of the serial killer rather than the cops, something that becomes especially clear during John's ranting monologue. The film is set in such a corrupt, dark, decaying world that there's a frightening logic to John's anger at the state of things. Even Mills and Somerset agree that it's a shitty world, that it needs fixing; they disagree with John over means rather than ends. They're hardly guiltless, either. We see the detectives investigating this case by using some blatantly illegal and unethical tactics, including the F.B.I. surveillance of library records, a surreal touch when revisited today, in light of the Bush-era initiatives that basically legalized exactly this practice. But the film never judges the cops for these actions, nor does it forgive them; if Se7en can be said to have a moral or ethical position on such matters, it's a coldly neutral one. This extends even to Mills' final act of wrath, which occurs in a context where it is almost impossible to judge him. The audience feels this gap that you talk about between intellectual knowledge and emotional reaction: we know, logically, that Mills is only doing exactly what John Doe wants, but we can't reasonably fault him for it, and on some level most of us watching the film probably admit that we'd do the same thing. The “right” thing to do, logically, would be to simply walk away, but what Mills does instead certainly doesn't feel “wrong.”
Also disquieting is the extent to which John's killing spree is equated with a work of art, a subtext that creates a parallel between the serial killer and the film's director. Both are assembling their “artworks,” putting the pieces in place, withholding the final touches until the very end. John explicitly compares his crimes to art, and he sounds very much like an artist when he talks about what he does. He wants people to remember his work, to talk about what he has done for a long time to come, to puzzle over it. It's disconcerting that Fincher places himself, as the filmmaker, in the role of serial killer, and he seems to take inordinate glee in letting John do his bloody work. Fincher displays the results of John's murders in much the same way as John displays them, by drawing the cops along on a chase, laying out clues that will lead them to further displays. The film's structure is dictated by John, who is a mouthpiece for the filmmaker; the ending, in which audience and cops are united in being manipulated, lays bare the truth that the director is the one guiding these hideous crimes.
It's rare that a filmmaker admits to such complicity with his own horrifying creation (it makes me think of Michael Haneke's infamous Funny Games, a film I've thought of several times in connection with Fincher's oeuvre). But it's obvious that Fincher shares, on some level, the disgust of John Doe at the “sins” of the world. I wouldn't agree with those who label Fincher, all too easily, as a nihilist, but I think he's at least a pessimist, someone who's suspicious of human nature. He ends the film with a very intriguing quote, delivered in voiceover by Morgan Freeman: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, 'The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part.” It's a typically conflicted sentiment, torn between idealism and defeatism. You suggest that Se7en's message implicitly endorses the actions of Mills, but to me the film's sympathies lie much more directly with Somerset, who wants to fight for good but knows that his policework has been effective more as a process of documentation and record-keeping than as justice or crime prevention. He doesn't see much use in anything he's been doing, and certainly the bleak resolution of this case doesn't give him any reason to reverse his low opinion of the world or the usefulness of his own actions in it.
JB: This is interesting, because I can look at the treatment of Somerset's character in two ways. Does Se7en sympathize with him? Sure. The final note of the film even seems to admire him for his Sisyphean doggedness. But just beyond that, the film also condemns Somerset to his purgatory. Mills might be headed to jail, but to echo the Hemingway quote, at least he threw some punches, at least he engaged in the fight. And that's an appropriate place for Se7en to end, because it foreshadows the dominant theme of Fincher's next two films, The Game and Fight Club, which suggest that in a world tainted by the seven deadly sins, perhaps the greatest evil of all is soul-numbing complacency, marked by a willingness to settle for material success. Of the two films, Fight Club couldn't be more blatant in its messaging (preaching), but The Game is hardly vague.