Two characters, four minutes, a brief exchange: Seven’s diner scene may be the most pivotal in the whole movie. Here’s why.
Spoilers ahead for 1995’s Seven. Spoilers also ahead for 1995's Se7en. Whichever way you spell it, consider yourself warned.
When Seven came out in 1995, it finally put David Fincher on the map as a filmmaking talent after the production nightmare he endured with Alien 3 only three years earlier. A mid-budget thriller elevated by its top-notch performances and unremittingly tense, grim tone, it also – as most readers will know – contained one of the most celebrated and discussed endings in film history.
Amid all the despair and violent murders, though, one quieter scene may be Seven’s most pivotal. It’s the moment where Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), the young wife of hot-headed detective Mills (Brad Pitt) surreptitiously meets Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) in a busy downtown diner. Ostensibly, she’s there to vent her feelings about moving from the comfort of the suburbs to a noisy and rundown metropolis (the city in Seven is never named, but it’s implied to be New York).
As the pair talk, though, Somerset astutely figures out that something more serious is bothering Tracy. She then reveals that she’s pregnant, and is unsure whether she wants to keep the baby, given they’ve just moved to a cramped apartment and her husband’s just taken on a demanding new job.
Somerset then tells his own story: that he and a former girlfriend were also having a baby at one stage, but he’d talked her out of keeping it. “I remember thinking, how can I bring a child into a world like this? How can a person grow up with all this around them? I told her I didn’t want to have it…”
It’s a low-key scene, and one of the film’s more subtle ones, tucked away as it is around the end of Seven’s second act – the day before two further victims are discovered, and before the mysterious killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) surrenders to police. It’s only on repeat viewings that it becomes clear that the information dished out in the diner scene is pivotal to what happens next, and it’s even arguable that, without the assured acting, directing and writing all working together, the entire film could have fallen apart if the sequence hadn’t worked.
First, we have to buy the notion that Tracy is so lonely and desperate that she’d seek out Somerset – a person whom she’d only met once before – and tell him something so personal. That Freeman embodies Somerset with so much warmth, and that the earlier meeting between his character and Paltrow’s was so filled with easy-going charm and chemistry, makes it easier to be persuaded that the two forged a friendship in that earlier meeting.
Paltrow’s vulnerability in the diner scene, and the care with which Fincher and cinematographer Darius Khondji film their back-and-forth, help underline the intimacy of the moment. We’re aware that something painful and important is being shared here, even if first-time viewers will have no clue as to how brutally it’ll pay off later.
Because, ultimately, this is the point in the film where screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker provides the set-off for Seven’s bleak conclusion. Somerset says to Tracy that if she chooses not to keep the baby, then she shouldn’t tell her husband. Whether you agree with his advice or not, it’s a single line that will come back to haunt Somerset in the final act. Had Somerset and Tracy not shared this one secret, then John Doe’s taunt to Mills about his pregnant wife wouldn’t have carried so much dreadful resonance.
After all, in that fateful moment in the desert between Mills, John Doe and the unexpected delivery of a small box, Somerset may have convinced Mills to put down his gun, and not end his career by shooting Doe. It’s when Doe talks about Tracy “begging for her life and the baby inside her,” that Somerset himself loses his temper, thus revealing to Mills the truth.
It’s a blackly, horribly ingenious bit of plot construction – all the more so because, in a story that otherwise depicts Mills as impulsive and reckless and Somerset as wise and controlled, it’s the secret between Somerset and Tracy that causes everything to unravel in that moment.
Andrew Kevin Walker once described one of Seven’s themes as being about the tension between optimism and pessimism – the youthful enthusiasm of Brad Pitt’s Mills versus Somerset’s burned-out cynicism. “Those dramatically-opposed points of view are pushing and pulling each other throughout the story,” Walker told Uproxx in 2015. “And then once pessimism is confirmed, even to the optimist who’s been arguing that the fight is always worth fighting, will the pessimist in the light of confirmation of all his worst predictions, will he stay or will he walk away?”
Those scenes of optimism and pessimism, hope and despair, are also present and correct in the diner scene. In just a handful of minutes, and just a few pages of economical dialogue, we learn about what unites two lonely people at different points in their lives (“I hate this city…”), what separates them (Tracy’s murmured, “I want to have children”) their regrets and their fears. It’s a scene that works on an emotional level, and also drives the plot in ways that are cleverly kept out of view.
In Seven’s final moments, we see Mills horror-struck, processing in real-time what John Doe’s told him about the death of his wife. As Mills’ hand tightens around his gun, his face changing to something more purposeful, Fincher does something ingenious: he cuts in a few frames of Paltrow’s face, bathed in light.
Here it is:
For years, this almost subliminal image led many viewers to think they actually saw Tracy’s severed head in a box, which of course they never did (a prosthetic head was reportedly made for Seven, but went unused). Rather, the last time movie-goers see Tracy is in that diner; eyes filled with sadness, pondering which path to take.
Fincher’s subliminal cut therefore serves as a kind of afterimage of that scene. It represents the memory of a lost wife flashing back into Mills’ brain. For the viewer, it’s a subtle link back to the moment in the story where the seeds of its characters’ fate were first sown.—
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