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Terri Murray responds to a shocking film in a shocking way, with the help of Lewis Rose.
Spoiler alert: this review reveals the end of the film.
When the film Se7en [‘Seven’] was released in 1995 I reluctantly went to see it with a date, not because I thought it was remotely interesting, but because I thought my date might be, despite her poor taste in films. I left the cinema feeling irritated by the film’s sexual violence, which seemed to reach new heights of obscenity, barely rendered meaningful by the novelty of a psychopath obsessed by the seven deadly sins (the premise of the film involves a serial killer executing murders according to the motifs of sloth, pride, gluttony, jealousy, avarice, lust and wrath). To me, Se7en was just another Kevin Spacey vehicle with no point to make other than that some large amorphous group of misogynistic viewers are easily titillated by brazen depravity.
I am deeply indebted to my film studies student Lewis Rose, whose insights into Se7en’s characters made the scales fall from my eyes. Through reading his comments, I was able to see a point to the film’s fetishistic violence and appreciate the complexity of its message.
The Hero and Monster Connection
Rose began by pointing out how Detective Somerset’s (Morgan Freeman’s) character is carefully developed in the narrative to suggest a connection to the character of the elusive killer, John Doe (Kevin Spacey).
Prior to the title sequence we see Somerset dressing in his flat, note the way his things are arranged neatly on his bureau, and see him attempting to remove a piece of fluff from his jacket, emphasizing his fastidiousness and attention to detail. Then there’s a cut from Somerset getting dressed to a blood-drenched corpse, bringing us straight into the horrific aspect of the film.
In the opening dialogue here, when talking about the murder that has taken place, Somerset asks, “Did the kid see it?” to which another officer replies, “The kid? It’s always these fucking questions with you, did the kid see it? Who gives a shit? He’s dead, his wife shot him.” But this reveals an aspect of Somerset’s character; his nature is to care about the details of the situation. Soon there is another scene of Somerset at home. Before going to sleep he starts a metronome, which we see and hear for a full thirty seconds – again symbolic of Somerset’s methodical, patient nature, which will be crucial to solving the mystery. Then we cut to the title sequence, consisting of a montage of images of a faceless John Doe preparing his scrapbooks. In this sequence we see Doe’s hands scrupulously cutting out the pictures, slicing his fingertips to remove fingerprints, etc, accompanied by distorted, surreal music. The sounds are especially suggestive of the relationship between Doe and Somerset: somehow Doe cannot control the tempo, whereas Somerset’s metronome suggests that, despite other similarities between them, he can make orderly music according to rules.
As the plot progresses, the veteran detective Somerset is gradually able to piece together a shadowy rationale behind the cryptic clues left by the killer. It is not until the end of the film that we become aware how much his success in tracking the killer depends upon his meticulousness, patience and tenaciously methodical approach – the very attributes he shares with his demonic antagonist. It is the juxtaposition of these two characters which sets up the final scene with its moral pay-off.
The Hero and ‘Hero’ Disconnection
As Rose pointed out, the by-the-book caring cop Somerset presents an odd contrast to his rookie new partner, the hardline, brash cop Mills (Brad Pitt). This opposition is established early in the film, but its full significance is only revealed in the final act, when John Doe delivers the punchline to the moralizing but ultimately hypocritical Mills: the final of the seven deadly sins in the killer’s plan is committed by the self-proclaimed (and stereotypical) crime-fighter ‘hero’ Mills, who in his anger kills John Doe. This ending subverts the viewer’s expectations of the crime or thriller genre, whose conventions typically require neat closure achieved through the capture or obliteration of the villain and the subsequent consummation of the romance between the hero and his female helper.
Here Mill’s lover and the symbol of their consummation, her pregnancy, are utterly destroyed. Our heroic saviour not only failed to protect her, but also fails to deliver justice, when he joins in the killer’s symbolic plan and lowers himself to the same moral depravity.
Somerset alone remains morally intact. He stops the cycle of violence by vanquishing his own demons – while Mills failed through looking for a scapegoat elsewhere. As Rose wrote, “Somerset and Mills deal with their subconscious connections to Doe in very different ways. This is most apparent in the final car ride. We see an understanding if not a slight rapport between Somerset and Doe. For example, when Doe asks Somerset a question, he obligingly answers. Mills deals with Doe in a very different way; he instantly labels Doe as a ‘freak’. With no provocation Mills confronts Doe, saying, “When someone is insane, as you clearly are, do you know you are insane?…” Doe replies to this by saying, “It is more comfortable for you to label me insane” – making Mills even more insecure, as this is a very valid insight into Mills’ subconscious.
Somerset’s professional edge over Mills in successfully predicting the criminal’s next move, and his moral edge as a responsible protector figure, come not from his superior sleuthing, but from his ability to deal responsibly with his own subconscious connection to Doe.
The ‘Hero’ and Monster Connection
Detective Somerset also has much in common with killer John Doe, but differs from him in his ability to control his urges.
What in common? For one, a cop and a ‘religious fanatic’ like Doe share similar motives. As Rose writes, “He is not the conventional serial killer in that his motive is to eradicate ‘sinners’. He feels he is killing in order to better mankind.”
The parallel here with overzealous cops is only too evident. Not content to deal with the ‘monster’ in the legal and proper manner, Detective Mills is drawn into utter sympathy with a statement that Doe himself makes in defense of his meticulously-orchestrated murders: after his arrest, Doe tells the two officers that “wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore, you have to hit them with a sledgehammer.”
The most striking thing is how both Doe and Mills are motivated by the same kind of puritanical lust for perfection – and how in both cases this perfection is sought, hypocritically, by eradicating the external source of evil (the ‘other’) while failing to turn the puritanical gaze inwards. In wanting to be responsible for other people’s behaviour, both Doe and Mills perpetuate the wrongs they aspire to wipe clean.
Meet the Monster
The violence in Se7en is fetishistic precisely because Doe is trying to make a moral statement through art (the detail that has gone into his murders and the records of his crimes clearly displays a perverse form of art). The film gets a reaction at the gut level, and thus is arguably more effective than art which does not shock or disturb.
Yet the power of a disturbing and even disgusting film such as Se7en lies partly in our inability to put a comfortable distance between ourselves and the art. We respond as much to our own emotions and reactions as to the events on screen, and in a discomforting way we feel implicated in violence which seems ‘other’ and ‘monstrous’. One may see this as a reflexive commentary, in which the Mills character represents our position vis-à-vis the horrors we see on screen. We may express disgust (or, as in my case, irritation or moral outrage) at violent acts pictured on screen, but systematic studies of the horror genre have suggested the opposite is the deeper truth – that the monster represents a projection of wish-fulfillment and an ‘escape’ from internal and external censors which repress our subconscious desires. Yet like Mills, we may be unaware how much the monsters we celebrate on screen year after year resemble our own inner psyches.
One of the pleasures of the crime/thriller genre is the moment of catharsis when we see the monster blown to smithereens by the sympathetic hero. Not only does this make us feel vicariously omnipotent, it also allows our lust for violent revenge to be expressed relatively harmlessly. After all, like Mills, we’re torn between a moral repulsion at barbaric acts and a subconscious desire to inflict equally repugnant punishments on their perpetrators, and so eradicate such crimes by equally forbidden and extreme means. This fantasy is part of what makes violent horror and crime movies so persistently popular. The genius of Se7en is the way it exposes and reflects our hypocrisy about this.
© Terri Murray 2010
Terri is a graduate of NYU Film School and is Managing Director of Blacksheep DV Productions. She has taught Film Studies at Hampstead College of Fine Arts and Humanities since 2002, and is author of Feminist Film Studies: A Guide for Teachers (Auteur, 2007). Lewis Rose is one of her pupils.
When accepting the Empire readers' Best Film award, self-deprecating screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker said of Seven, "We thought it was just a pretentious slasher movie." And he ought to know because he went on to write Joel Schumacher's 8MM, which was just a pretentious slasher movie. Though it turned out to be the step beyond The Silence Of The Lambs that kept the flagging serial killer genre alive, Walker originally scripted Seven (or Se7en as the title appears on screen) as a low-budgeter along the lines of his work on video rental rack-fillers Brainscan (1994) or Hideaway (1995). This time gleefully exploring the Agatha Christiesque high concept (prefigured by the Belgian horror film Devil's Nightmare) of a string of murders based around the seven deadly sins.
The film became a more substantial project with the input of David Fincher, redeeming himself after the shaky directing of Alien 3.
Fincher, the major turn-of-the-millennium filmmaker, would develop the visual and thematic material of Seven in the underrated The Game (1997) and the near-masterpiece Fight Club (1999). He emphasises eerie nuances and character quirks over plot mechanics, with powerful assistance from Darius Khondji's cinematography (silvery rain and gray shadows) and the jagged editing of Richard Francis-Bruce (both taking cues from a distinctive and much-imitated title sequence designed by Kyle Cooper).
Together with Howard Shore's music and the slightly cesspool stylised performances, the effect is of a film that takes place at one remove from reality. Though set in the present day, the peripherals (typewriters, gramophone records) are slightly old-fashioned, while other design elements (police cars, uniforms) take a step towards the retro-noir style of Blade Runner or Lars von Trier's The Element Of Crime, transforming an unnamed, rainswept, desert-surrounded city into an annex of Hell.
The storyline goes beyond unlikely into deliberate realms of metaphysics, where a serial killer's elaborate spree — he has spent over a year setting up a plot apparently designed to warp the mind of a man he can only have been aware of for a week — is as much a philosophical exploration as a mad crime, intended to convince the cops on the case that the world is an infernal cesspool. Soon-to-retire homicide detective William Somerset (Freeman) and his idealistic but hotheaded replacement David Mills (Pitt) spend the last seven days of Somerset's career investigating a series of sin-themed murders: a hugely obese man forced to eat until his stomach bursts; a greedy lawyer made to slice off a pound of flesh, a slothful drug addict left tied to a bed for a year; a lustful hooker murdered by a John with a razor-edged dildo (the manufacturer mistook the killer for "a performance artist"); a vain woman mutilated and given the choice between survival as a mutilated freak or suicide.
The last two sins are taken care of in the finale as the envious killer "John Doe" (Spacey) reveals that he has decapitated Mills' pregnant wife Tracy (Paltrow) and Express-mailed the head to a desert location. The punchline, a despairing rewrite of the summary execution and badge-tossing of Dirty Harry, is that the wrathful Mills destroys his own soul ("David, if you kill him, he will win") in empty vengeance by gunning down Doe according to his demented plan.
Make-up supremo Rob Bottin creates truly hideous victims, Fincher cops a shock trick from the obscure 1981 zombie movie Dead And Buried as one apparent corpse turns out to be alive, and there's a Blade Runner-style chase-through-the-rainy-streets mid-way through the film to get some actual action on screen. But Fincher actually avoids acts of violence in favour of acts of investigation as the cops prowl the crime scenes and hit the libraries (when Somerset gives Mills a reading list of Chaucer and Dante, the younger man gets hold of Cliff Notes) trying to piece together the mind of the murderer.
In a lovely, paranoid touch, they get near Doe because the FBI has been secretly and illegally monitoring the library loans of every nutjob in the country. The message of all the killing is that the world is a truly vile place, and in their different ways both cops are forced to accept John Doe's awful argument. As the shattered Detective Mills is driven away, Somerset's voice-over muses, "Ernest Hemingway once wrote, 'The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part."
Superb modern horror with a twist to die for.