20 years later, why Se7en still has one of the most shocking endings in cinematic history

Warning: Spoilers for a 20-year-old movie below.

Twenty years ago, Brad Pitt’s exclamation of fear and dread jolted audiences and left a lasting cultural imprint. The ending of Se7en, director David Fincher’s breakout film, is one of the most shocking, disturbing, and iconic twists in modern cinema, capping a tight, wrought thriller.

The film’s initial introduction to its world, a metropolis mired in unrest, is normal enough. Cool veteran Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is paired with young hothead Detective Mills (Pitt) in pursuing a serial killer who picks his victims based on the seven deadly sins. They follow the clues and corpses, and the murderous John Doe (Kevin Spacey) eventually makes it into their custody, promising to reveal his two final victims — targeted for envy and wrath.

But the third act abandons cinematic tropes and convention. The promise of the final two corpses is brought into question when a mysterious box arrives that is Doe’s coup de grace; it contains the head of Mills’ wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) — never seen on screen, but revealed through dialogue and reaction. Doe acted on his envy of Mills’ normal life, and incurs Mills’ lethal wrath. Though he’s killed by the hands of the good guy, the bad guy’s death serves as a loss for the positive forces of the world.

And it was all this close to not happening; “What’s in the box?!” nearly missed its canonization. Fincher, scribe Andrew Kevin Walker, and some of the cast, including Brad Pitt, fought for the original planned finale, against the studio’s protests. The producers eventually conceded to uphold the work’s artistic integrity. “There’s nothing wrong with up endings, it’s just that the dark ending of Se7en was what it was about,” Walker told Uproxx. “To change the ending to something else was to remove the very heart of the story.”

So on its 20th anniversary, Entertainment Weekly looks at how off-camera elements of the film successfully crafted suspense and resulted in Se7en’s enduring ending.

Tense, unsettling direction

Director: David Fincher

The finale owes much of its edge-of-your-seat quality to the tension established earlier in the film. “Tension was built from the earliest scenes,” producer Arnold Kopelson writes in an email to EW. “When the audience is finally in the last scenes, it is the culmination of all that it has been carefully constructed it to be.”

Kopelson was one of the ending’s early opposers, but says he eventually came around. “We attempted many different endings and none worked,” Kopelson explains. “It needed this horrendous event to kick off the last sin, wrath.” He says he gave his okay when Fincher (Gone Girl, Fight Club) assured him that the audience would not see Tracy’s head in the box, leaving much of the horror up to the imagination. Kopelson credits Fincher with maintaining intensity at the film’s end. 

Fincher also embraced creative risks. He employed shaky camera to enhance the action and drama and included a brief shot of Tracy just before Mills shoots Doe, decisions editor Richard Francis-Bruce applauds. But most of all, Francis-Bruce praises Fincher’s commitment to his vision. “I think he was only 32 when he shot that, and he came with such authority,” Francis-Bruce says. “He was in total command, he knew exactly what he was going to achieve, and went for it.”

RELATED: How Brad Pitt fought to keep Gwyneth’s head in the box in Se7en

An unconventional screenplay

Writer: Andrew Kevin Walker

The plot mostly plays as straightforward detective story: There’s a string of murders; the unlikely duo is on it; and the fuzz nearly catches the bad guy. But it’s all upended right before the final act, when Doe turns himself in. “The fact that John Doe turns himself in steals a lot of the satisfaction away from not just the characters in the movie but the audience,” Walker told Uproxx, “and it put them in a very uncomfortable, off-kilter position as they, along with the other characters in the movie, proceed into the third act.”

“It starts off as a police procedural, and becomes a morality play about engaging with evil,” Fincher adds on the DVD commentary.

The scene hinges on the fated car ride with Mills, Somerset, and Doe. The tried “good guys vs. bad guy” conversation doesn’t occur in a holding cell; rather, it’s in a sedan, where Doe can espouse his beliefs to the cops in a relatively free manner. It’s an atypical stage given to an antagonist in a compromising position, and it felt innately different than the conventional cops-and-bad-guy cliché. But when Mills says Doe only kills the innocent, his evil materializes.

“Innocent? Is that supposed to be funny?” Doe incredulously asks. “Only in a world this s–tty could you try to say these were innocent people and keep a straight face.”

A predictable ending might have been a ruse by Doe tricking Somerset and Mills, his life ending by one of them after a failed escape. Something of that DNA was intimated as the delivery truck rumbles in. But Walker’s script presents ambiguity about who’s really in charge until the power shifts when Somerset opens the box and realizes that Doe has the upper hand. From there, Doe never concedes it.

“[The twist is] one of the reasons I think Se7en did well,” Walker says in the DVD commentary. “Because people went in and they did not know in the first 10 minutes exactly how the movie was going to end.”

The ominous score

Composer: Howard Shore

Like many viewers, composer Howard Shore (The Silence of the Lambs, The Lord of The Rings and The Hobbit series) had a very strong reaction to the film’s shocking end. “It had a visceral, kind of primal effect on me,” says Shore, who incorporated that reaction into his big, booming closer. 

There’s little music backing Mills and Somerset’s heated conversation with Doe about his motivations during the car ride. “As a composer, you’re always very aware of time,” Shore says. “I think I may have been playing with that a little bit, maybe drawing out the car ride or even speeding it up at times.” Here, the near-absence of the score is crucial. When it returns to highlight moments like Doe telling Mills he won’t miss the end to his big plan, it’s all the more ominous and effective.

And when Somerset opens the box and that bold music blares — brought to life by a large orchestra of about 90 to 100 — viewers know that the power dynamic has shifted dramatically, even before Somerset verbalizes that Doe is in control. “The music starts, and it turns the scene, it turns it into John Doe’s perspective,” Shore explains. “The music enters, and you realize, the look of the horror on his face, it’s a chilling moment.” Beat after beat, the score supports and intensifies the devastating revelations, until the film’s bleak end. 

RELATED: 1995 Se7en Review

Measured cuts

Editor: Richard Francis-Bruce

“I’m a great believer in having a motivated cut,” Francis-Bruce says. “There’s got to be a reason why I’m cutting to this shot, not just for arbitrary reasons.” The signs appear even before the key players arrive at the field. In the unsettling car ride to the boonies, with prolonged shots on each character, the audience gets a feel for where Somerset, Mills, and Doe stand.

But then the delivery truck and package arrive, and before Shore’s score menaces, there’s deliberation and silence. Somerset worries, opens the box, and then his face contorts with horror. The scene cuts from a side angle of the box, back to Somerset’s dismay, back to the box. The truth, though unseen, stuns. “People are convinced they see the head in the box,” Francis-Bruce says, “just because of Morgan’s performance.”

As Somerset runs back to Mills and Doe, the cuts become quicker and more frenetic, leading up to Mills learning his wife’s fate. Mills is torn between his training and his tragic loss. Finally, the quick four-frame insert to Tracy appears, Mills’ thought before he pulls the trigger. And then, a cut to the perspective of the police, stuck in a helicopter above: “Somebody call somebody.”

“The whole scene has a very natural build to it,” Francis-Bruce says. “The mystery of the truck and what’s going, to the realization something awful’s gone on, to the realization that something even worse is going on, and the fact that John Doe didn’t realize that Mills didn’t realize he was going to have a child. That was, for him, a little added bonus to the whole thing.”

Mills, defeated by Doe, is shuttled away to pay for his final sin. But even after all the darkness of the climax, Somerset retains a semblance of hope. “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for,’ ” he says in a voiceover. “I agree with the second part.” The final lines, tacked on as a studio compromise, were resisted by Freeman, according to Francis-Bruce; but the two paraphrased lines from For Whom the Bell Tolls — a study on humanity amid war — softens the emotional devastation that precedes it.