Se7en is a 1995 neo-noir thriller written by Andrew Kevin Walker and directed by David Fincher. It stars Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Kevin Spacey, and Gwyneth Paltrow, with R. Lee Ermey, John C. McGinley, and Richard Roundtree.
A serial killer known only as “John Doe” (Spacey) targets his victims based on each of them being guilty of committing one of the seven deadly sins; and two detectives, Lieutenant William Somerset (Freeman) and David Mills (Pitt), must track Doe down before he completes his grisly sermon, to teach people not to trivialize the deadly sins.
Here are some quotes:
Detective Taylor: Neighbors heard them screaming at each other, like for two hours, and it was nothing new. Then they heard the gun go off, both barrels. Crime of passion.
William Somerset: Yeah, just look at all the passion on that wall.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a homicide.” –Mills, of the ‘Gluttony’ victim
“Long is the way, /And hard, that out of hell leads up to light.” —John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book II, Lines 432-33.
“Fuckin’ Dante… poetry-writing faggot! Piece of shit, motherfucker!” –Mills, banging a book in frustration
“‘One pound of flesh; no more, no less. No cartilage, no bone, but only flesh.’ Merchant of Venice.” –Somerset, of the ‘Greed’ victim
“He’s experienced about as much pain and suffering as anyone I’ve encountered, give or take…and he still has hell to look forward to.” Dr. Beardsley, of the ‘Sloth’ victim
Somerset: Victor’s landlord said there was an envelope of cash in the office mailbox the first of every month. Quote: “I never heard a single complaint from the tenant in apartment 306, and nobody ever complained about him. He’s the best tenant I’ve ever had.” End quote.
Mills: Yeah, a landlord’s dream: a paralyzed tenant with no tongue.
Somerset: Who pays the rent on time.
“It’s dismissive to call him a lunatic. Don’t make that mistake.” –Somerset, to Mills
[Mills and Somerset are reading through the FBI results] Mills: Modern Homicide Investigation, In Cold Blood, Of Human Bondage … bondage?
Somerset: Not what you think it is.
Mills: Okay. The Marquis de-Shaday …
Somerset: It’s the Marquis de Sade.
Mills: Whatever. The Writings of Saint Thomas Aqua-something.
Somerset: Saint Thomas Aquinas? There it is. He wrote about the seven deadly sins. Is that it?
Somerset: We must forget our emotion. We must focus on the details.
Mills: I feed off my emotions. How’s that?
“It’s impressive to see a man feed off his emotions.” –Somerset (annoyed), of Mills
“What sick ridiculous puppets we are / and what a gross little stage we dance on / What fun we have dancing and fucking / Not a care in the world / Not knowing that we are nothing / We are not what was intended.” –Somerset, reading from one of John Doe’s journals
“On the subway today, a man came up to me to start a conversation. He made small talk, a lonely man talking about the weather and other things. I tried to be pleasant and accommodating, but my head hurt from his banality. I almost didn’t notice it had happened, but I suddenly threw up all over him. He was not pleased, and I couldn’t stop laughing.” –Somerset, reading from one of Doe’s journals
“I admire you. I don’t know how you found me, but imagine my surprise. I respect you law enforcement agents more every day.” –Doe, to Mills on the phone
“Get this thing off of me! Get this thing off of me!…He – he put that thing on me…! He made me wear it!…He told me to fuck her, and…and I did! I fucked her! He had a gun in my mouth! The fucking gun was in my throat! FUCK! Oh God, oh God…please help me. Help me. Please help me.” –Crazed Man in Massage Parlour, wearing a strap-on with a blade, which Doe had made for him
Mills: You know, see, you bitch and you complain and you tell me these things – if you think you’re preparing me for hard times, thank you, but…
Somerset: But you got to be a hero? You want to be a champion. Well, let me tell you, people don’t want a champion. They wanna eat cheeseburgers, play the lotto and watch television.
Mills: Hey, how did you get like this? I wanna know.
Somerset: Well. [sighs] It wasn’t one thing, I can tell you that.
Mills: Go on.
Somerset: I just don’t think I can continue to live in a place that embraces and nurtures apathy as if it was a virtue!
Mills: You’re no different. You’re no better.
Somerset: I didn’t say I was different or better. I’m not! Hell, I sympathize; I sympathize completely. Apathy is a solution. I mean, it’s easier to lose yourself in drugs than it is to cope with life. It’s easier to steal what you want than it is to earn it. It’s easier to beat a child than it is to raise it. Hell, love costs: it takes effort and work.
Dr. O’Neill: He cut off her nose…
Somerset: …to spite her face. [Of Doe’s murdering the “Pride” victim]
“Detective. Detective. DETECTIVE! You’re looking for me.” –Doe, to Mills
“Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention.” –Doe
David Mills: Wait, I thought all you did was kill innocent people.
John Doe: Innocent? Is that supposed to be funny? An obese man…a disgusting man who could barely stand up; a man who if you saw him on the street, you’d point him out to your friends so that they could join you in mocking him; a man, who if you saw him while you were eating, you wouldn’t be able to finish your meal. After him, I picked the lawyer and I know you both must have been secretly thanking me for that one. This is a man who dedicated his life to making money by lying with every breath that he could muster to keeping murderers and rapists on the streets!
David Mills: Murderers?
John Doe: A woman…
David Mills: Murderers, John, like yourself?
John Doe: [interrupts] A woman…so ugly on the inside she couldn’t bear to go on living if she couldn’t be beautiful on the outside. A drug dealer, a drug dealing pederast, actually! And let’s not forget the disease-spreading whore! Only in a world this shitty could you even try to say these were innocent people and keep a straight face. But that’s the point. We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it’s common, it’s trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon, and night. Well, not anymore. I’m setting the example. What I’ve done is going to be puzzled over and studied and followed…forever.
“It seems that envy is my sin.” –Doe
“Become vengeance, David. Become wrath.” –Doe
[Last line] “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” –Somerset (voiceover)
What must be noted about the deadly sins is that they are emotions, passions. Pride is excessive self-love; wrath is excessive anger, uncontrollable rage; envy (invidia) is a hateful looking on (the evil eye, as it were) at those more fortunate that oneself, and wishing to cut them down; greed is a passion for limitless wealth and luxurious possessions, “the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10); gluttony is a passion for food; lust is an excessive desire for sex (e.g., having multiple prostitutes every night); and sloth, an unwillingness to do anything for the common good, can be seen to be rooted in the emotion of despair, sadness.
We all experience each of these seven feelings at one point or another in life, and it’s perfectly normal and acceptable to feel a little of these emotions, provided we control them instead of vice versa. They become deadly sins when they’re allowed to run wild inside ourselves, driving us to hurt other people.
So the main theme of this film is unrestrained emotion. Doe imagines all seven of his victims to be guilty of allowing their emotions to get the better of them, when really it’s debatable if all of the victims have such poor self-control (though lack of control is certainly true of the men labelled with sloth, wrath, greed, and…envy!).
Is “the disease-spreading whore” guilty of lust, or–far more likely–is she an exploited, poor woman forced to have sex so she can live? Is the model really all that proud of her looks, or does she swallow the pills knowing her only way of making a living has been cut off from her (even modest people wouldn’t want to go through life disfigured)? Does the glutton have an eating disorder, does he have a genetic disposition to obesity, or does he overeat as a manic defence against his own sadness?
Now, the “infamous” defence lawyer (Eli Gould, the “Greed” victim)–having had Victor (the “Sloth” victim) acquitted, and having habitually lied to have other guilty men go free, so he can make bags of money defending them over and over again–is as guilty as Doe says he is, as is Victor…and two others. Still, some sins have been exaggerated.
On the other hand, Doe’s envy isn’t limited to Mills and his “simple life.” Perhaps Doe’s strict religious upbringing has forced him to repress his own desires to the point that he envies the rest of the world for being free to indulge in sins he mustn’t allow himself to indulge in. He hates the glutton’s over-enjoyment of food, so he kills him. Perhaps he secretly lusts after the prostitute (or prostitutes in general), and envies the men who pay to enjoy her, so he has someone make the strap-on with the blade. Perhaps he fell in love with the model, but she broke his heart, and he envies her boyfriend.
The seven deadly sins are so destructive because any surrender to one sin can lead to committing another. Doe’s envy clearly leads to his anger towards “a world this shitty.” The Christian morality he imagines he is adhering to (remarkable self-deceit for a multiple murderer) gives him pride, a sense of superiority over the “common” sinners. That he imagines God has chosen him to kill sinners is outrageously arrogant. His strict sexual morality, the repression of his desires, makes his lusting after prostitutes not only possible, but almost bordering on probable (perhaps “the disease-spreading whore” gave him an STD). Doe also seems, in a way, to be succumbing to sloth.
What would drive a conservative Christian (apart from Western imperialists and their crusading in such things as Zionism and the “War on Terror,” but I digress) to become a multiple murderer? As Somerset cautions Mills, we shouldn’t dismiss Doe’s pathology as mere madness. That would be ignorant. We have to look for causes, traumas, disappointments…despair.
A Christian is supposed to have no illusions about the enormity of sin in the world. His faith in God and Christ is supposed to give him the patience and strength to bear the horrors of everyday life. A Christian is supposed to combat sin by doing good, by setting an example. “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.” (1 John 4:8). Doe, on the other hand, sets a bloody example, because he is full of hate…but who does he really hate?
Doe’s motive for murder seems to be based on his knowledge of the bestial sin he feels inside of himself: his pride from seeing himself, a man of faith, as better than the sinners around him; his anger at the sin he sees everywhere; his envy of other people’s happiness; and his possible (if not probable, given his life of sexual repression) lust after prostitutes and the model. His awareness of the evil inside himself, coupled with the blood of Christ having never tamed the beast inside him (despite his faith), must have led to at least a faith struggle he’s denying in himself, if not outright despair…sloth.
He adamantly denies his loss of faith, as he denies his sinning (pride, anger, sloth, and lust) in any ways other than envy; he projects these other sins onto other people, regardless of whether they’re actually guilty of them or not. He rationalizes his pride and wrath, cloaking these sins in the garb of righteousness. He postures as one with pious control over his emotions; underneath that posturing is a repressed, disavowed sloth.
A feeling of sloth (i.e., apathy, despair, and depression) pervades the film, in the literal and symbolic senses. It frequently rains, symbolic tears of the despairing. Somerset is a jaded old cop soon to retire, to end his work. He’s seen so much crime and misery that he sees little reason to think the human condition will ever improve. He hasn’t completely succumbed to sloth, but he’s pretty close to it.
The one with the fiery passion is his idealistic but bad-tempered [!] partner, Mills. We see a dialectical relationship between his idealism and Somerset’s disillusion, for when Doe provokes Mills to his raging extreme, his devastation at the film’s end is his having gone past the serpent’s biting head of extreme rage, a rage over the destroying of his hopes and dreams, to the serpent’s bitten tail of despair, over his having become the very kind of criminal he was supposed to be trying to stop.
(Recall how I use the ouroboros to symbolize the dialectical unity of opposites. The coiled serpent, as I see it, represents a circular continuum, the extreme opposite ends of which are seen where its head bites its tail.)
The moderation of Somerset’s jadedness is what keeps him from reaching the extreme of slothful despair. He flings a switchblade at a dartboard, one time almost hitting the bullseye, at other times hitting further away from it–all times missing the mark (hamartia, or sin). He’s far from perfect, but still a reasonably good man.
Seven does not only refer to the deadly sins; it can also refer to the first seven days of Biblical Creation, the seventh being the day God rested. (Recall Somerset’s words to Mills in this regard: “Well, over the next 7 days, Detective, you’ll do me the favour of remembering that.”) Somerset will retire, finishing his work, as God did at the end of the sixth day; Doe wants to die (i.e., his goading of Mills to shoot him)…eternal rest, after finishing “God’s good work,” or seven days of creating homicides (from the discovery of the “Gluttony” victim on Monday to his death as “Envy” on Sunday).
John Doe freely admits to his personal desire “to turn each sin against the sinner,” as he rationalizes it. The fact that the Marquis de Sade–a fanatically atheistic writer of blasphemous, pornographic fiction in which libertines delight in raping, torturing, and murdering their victims (often underage ones!), then philosophize about how crime is necessitated by Nature–is among Doe’s reading, borrowed from the library, should tell you what kind of a “Christian” he is.
Indeed, Doe enjoys terrorizing and torturing his victims before killing them; hence, the gun pressed against the head of the “Gluttony” victim as he makes the fat man eat until his gut bursts…including eating “little pieces of plastic” (according to the police captain [Ermey]). Monday: the first day.
Then, he forces the “Greed” victim, at gun point, to cut out a pound of his own flesh. The victim’s first name, Eli, is Hebrew in origin; though Gould is Anglo-Saxon, it could easily be an Anglicizing of, say, Goldberg (Glenn Gould, his family surname having originally been Gold, was at times mistakenly thought to be Jewish). Added to this is, from a scanning of the photo of Eli lying dead from his gory wound, the perception of Semitic facial features. I mention these details to suggest, along with the allusion to The Merchant of Venice, Doe’s implied Christian antisemitism, with the stereotype of the ‘greedy Jew.’
A careful reading of The Merchant of Venice will show, however, that Shylock was not being greedy (How could he profit from a pound of flesh?), but vengeful, just as John Doe is being vengeful in killing Gould. However greedy Gould may be, cutting out a pound of his flesh is not, in his case, an appropriate way “to turn [the] sin against the sinner.” If Doe imagines it is, it’s really just him projecting his own wrath onto Gould, making him turn wrath and vengeance against himself. Tuesday: the second day.
Fingerprints on a wall in Gould’s office, behind an abstract painting Doe has turned upside-down, print out the message, “HELP ME.” This is assumed to be Doe asking for help for himself; instead, it leads us to Victor (real name, Theodore Allen), the “Sloth” victim, whose hand Doe has cut off to print the “HELP ME” message on the wall.
Though tied to a bed and kept barely alive over the course of a year (i.e., as if he were too lazy to get out of bed), Victor’s sloth doesn’t come in the form of idleness. Having been given “a very strict Southern Baptist upbringing” (Raised in a strict Christian environment? Sounds familiar.), Victor has lost his faith and turned to a life of crime (armed robbery, drug dealing, and sexually assaulting minors). Again, his loss of faith and turning to a life of crime sounds a lot like projecting John: “HELP ME” seems to be Doe asking for help for himself after all. Wednesday: the third day.
Somerset, Mills, and a SWAT team led by California (McGinley) find Victor’s apartment under the assumption that he’s the seven-deadly-sins killer, only to realize he’s the “Sloth” victim; this mistaken identity reinforces the idea that Doe has projected his sloth onto Victor, however slothful his victim may have been in real life (Victor’s indulgence in drugs and pederasty seems to be a manic defence against his sadness). Victor isn’t quite dead: he gasps for life, shocking all the cops in the room. This shows how the suffering in sloth is really a living death.
Right after Somerset warns Mills to control his emotions, the latter lets his rage fly out of control in front of a man taking pictures of him. The photographer, we later learn, is the killer, having captured Mills in a state of wrath.
Recall that there’s a sad tone throughout this film, with the tears of all the angels in heaven, as it were, falling to the earth in the form of rain. Mills’s wife, Tracy (Paltrow) is sad and lonely in her apartment, knowing nobody in this town that she and her husband have just moved to–apart from Somerset, whom she phones and asks to get together with to talk about what’s troubling her. Thursday: the fourth day.
Somerset and Tracy chat in a restaurant: we learn she’s pregnant and unsure if she should keep the baby (she hasn’t told David). Somerset wouldn’t want to bring a child into the ugly world he sees around him, but he regrets a decision he once made to have his former partner have an abortion.
It’s interesting, just to note in passing, when Somerset and Mills discuss the “Sloth” victim’s landlord, who considers Victor to have been the perfect tenant. As long as the rent is paid on time and there are no complaints about him making any noise, etc., he can be as despairing, directionless, and slothful as he likes.
Somerset and Mills later go get a printout of whoever has been borrowing books about the seven deadly sins, crime, etc., from the library, thanks to the help of an FBI man. Doe’s reading tastes range everywhere from Sade to Aquinas: he’s educated, cultured, and psychopathic. The detectives may not have his real name, but now they know where he lives.
After the incident when Doe shoots at them, Mills chases him through his apartment building and in the rain, and Doe hits him on the head, bloody-faced Mills returns to the apartment building and in one of his rages kicks open Doe’s door. The cops search his apartment, finding a glowing red Cross and hundreds of notebooks of Doe randomly pouring out his nihilistic thoughts on paper; but not one fingerprint is found anywhere.
They do discover Doe’s many photographs, though, including those of “Gluttony,” “Greed,” a prostitute, and Mills. Unlike the many photos of Victor’s transformation from a normal-looking man to a degenerated, virtual corpse (symbolizing how sloth slowly destroys a man), the pictures of the other sinners catch them in a fixed state at the moment, as if that’s all there is to these people. Everyone else is just a static stereotype of a sin in Doe’s mind: only through sloth, a projection, recall, of Doe’s true mental state, do we see how a normal person gradually turns evil. Friday: the fifth day.
Somerset and Mills find the place where the strap-on has been made. We sense again the sloth of society in general when we see how the maker is unconcerned with the implications of having made such an awful thing; similarly, there’s the sloth of the man in the booth of the “massage parlour,” who lets men bring suitcases and bags of questionable things, like the strap-on, for use with the prostitutes.
At a bar together that night, Somerset and Mills discuss the contrast between the jadedness of the former vs. the idealism of the latter. In spite of all the sobering experiences Somerset has had over the years, Mills still won’t give up on his ideals. Somerset can sympathize with the slothful attitude, for how much easier it is to have such an attitude than it is to cope with life, but he hasn’t completely given up on the idea of trying to help, even though he’s retiring.
If we see Mills’s passion for making a difference as a cop as being near the biting head of the ouroboros (i.e., at the neck, so to speak), and we see absolute despair as being at the tip of the bitten tail, we can see Mills as being closer to that tail than is Somerset, who is further along the length of the serpent’s body, past the bitten tail and in the hind-to-middle area. Somerset has numbed to the suffering; for Mills to despair, though, all he needs is a little push. Saturday: the sixth day.
The large photo of the beautiful model, the “Pride” victim, is seen over her bloody, disfigured body in bed. Again, Doe imagines her sinful state to be a static, unchanging thing, as seen in that one photo.
When Doe gives himself up to the police and we see his bloody hands, we discover why he leaves no fingerprints anywhere. He’s been cutting them off, annihilating any knowledge of his true identity just as he has done by going by the anonymous name of “John Doe.” These two acts symbolize his wish to annihilate himself, just as he wants Mills to kill him. He wants to die because of his sloth and despair, however repressed they may be in a man who consciously still considers himself a faithful Christian.
As Somerset, Mills, and Doe go in the car to where the delivery of the box will occur at 7:00 in the evening (a bit after 7:01, actually–the delivery man misses the mark of Doe’s desired delivery time), Mills vents his rage on Doe. When Mills calls Doe’s victims “innocent people,” however, it’s Doe’s turn to be angry.
Any suggestion that his victims didn’t deserve to die for their faults, whether real or imagined by him (surely even the worst of these at least deserved a trial, and not so sadistic a killing!), triggers Doe, since he’s been projecting his own sinfulness onto them. His affectations of piety are really his narcissistic False Self, reaction formations of him pretending to intend good, a mask hiding his pride.
Doe’s anger rises to such a pitch that, ironically, it’s Mills who tells him to calm down; then, when Doe provokes Mills about the life he’s been allowed to keep having (after the killing of Tracy and the unborn child), Mills releases his fury once again.
Deep down, Doe wishes he could have the innocence of a child, as Jesus said we need to have to enter heaven (Matthew 18:3). It isn’t just Mills’s simple life that Doe envies; he also envies Tracy’s sweetness and the innocence of the unborn child. Now, Doe’s envy shifts into the Kleinian version.
While Doe has projected his sinfulness onto his victims, and onto all of the bad people in the world around him, he would also engage in projective identification, that is, project what he imagines is his Christian goodness onto the unborn child. Still, he cannot extricate himself from his own sinfulness, so that evil part of himself will still be inside the unborn child; then, when he’s projectively identified with the child, his Kleinian envy will make him wish to spoil the mother’s goodness. This is part of Doe’s phantasy, part of what drives him to kill Tracy and the unborn child. And in this connection, killing the unborn child is thus again the fulfillment of his wish to kill his projected self.
When Mills realizes his wife’s head is in the box, the despair is overwhelming. We all know he won’t be able to refrain from shooting Doe; there’s no hope that he’ll be able to control his hunger for vengeance, because any man would want to avenge the murder of the woman he loves, even men with much better control of their anger.
The enervation of sloth implies a lack of emotion, a numbness; but this is a superficial observation, for sloth comes from a deep sorrow, an unconsolable sadness stemming from a feeling of hopelessness, of despair…from a sense of wondering what the point is in even trying. Hence, sloth is as unrestrained an emotion as pride, anger, envy, greed, gluttony, and lust are. Mills is about to go from one extreme emotion (wrath) to another (sloth); he’s shifting from the biting head of the ouroboros to its bitten tail, from an extreme urge to do something to an extreme realization of the futility to do anything.
When Doe sees Mills walk over to him with the gun, about to put a bullet in his head, he closes his eyes, knowing he’s about to come to rest: “to die, to sleep,/ No more; and by a sleep to say we end/The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks/That flesh is heir to? ‘Tis a consummation/Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep…” (Hamlet, Act III, Scene i, lines 60-64). Doe’s despair is like that of the Dane. Sunday: the seventh day.
Sunday is the Lord’s Day, the Christian Sabbath, the day of rest. Doe has finished his work: he has seen all the mayhem that he has made, and it is very good (in his twisted imagination, anyway). Now he can rest. Somerset is about to retire, and rest. Mills will rest in prison for murder. Doe, in driving Mills to despair and devastation, has killed him, too.
Mills’s sloth is a living death, like moribund, gasping Victor tied to that bed. Mills’s despair is not only from losing the family he loves, not only from losing his freedom outside prison walls, but worst of all, from losing his ideal of being able to fight crime, knowing he’s no better than the “fucking crazies” he despises and wants to put in jail.
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