The adjective “nihilistic” and its vague synonyms are all too frequently attached to opinions of David Fincher’s extraordinary Se7en. “Nihilistic” often appears in descriptions as an afterthought, a convenient substitute for the expression of a complex emotional reaction induced by a powerful work of art that leaves viewers feeling confused, depressed and devoid of hope. Used as such, it suggests that Se7en does not exist for any worthwhile purpose.1
The difficulty I have with the attachment of this label to Se7en is that Se7en is not nihilistic but a concertedly structured, almost mathematically precise exercise in moral calculus that argues people must abandon apathy as a private solution to the problem of pandemic human suffering. If an incorrect view of a valuable work is perpetuated it tarnishes the reputation of that work and those who created it, and obscures the ability of viewers to engage that work as it is intended to be engaged. Language activates a conceptual understanding, a presupposition. “Nihilistic” is an especially toxic word that suggests far more than merely that a film has a downbeat ending. It suggests a work is immoral, amoral, and that, by imputation, the filmmakers, director and writer have willfully conspired to create art whose intent is to hurt viewers and disparage our collective confidence that our lives are meaningful. Thus, one who believes Se7en is an cynical exercise in torturing an audience may conclude, “Se7en is a nihilistic work; therefore, it doesn’t mean anything. It does not exist for any purpose other than to shock and depress people like me.” This is unfortunate, because I believe the meaning of Se7en is immutably clear, brilliantly argued and vitally important.
Se7en may leave viewers upset, confused and devoid of hope; however, to label it nihilistic—or to suggest that its meaning is that there is no meaning—is nonsense. Se7en does not promote the idea that our lives are meaningless, that existence is meaningless, or that we should engage the suffering of others impartially. It does not shrug its shoulders at serial murder and a degenerated society. It does not seek to punish it characters and audience for no purpose, but for an important purpose.
The ongoing discourse between Detectives David Mills (Brad Pitt) and William Somerset (a brilliant Morgan Freeman) that simmers at the film’s core is a vigorous presentation of two opposing and irreconcilable philosophies. Each man believes his philosophy makes the world a safer rather than a more dangerous place. Over the course of the narrative, Se7en explores, challenges and ruthlessly demolishes the intellectual integrity of the appealing but pernicious philosophy advocated by William Somerset.
Confusion arises because, as the film answers this question of whose philosophy is best, it answers it through the catharsis of bloodshed and loss. Like Somerset, viewers become attached to Mills, Tracy and the conceptual innocence of their unborn child, and feel betrayed by what befalls these characters. It’s natural that some spectators will leave a viewing of this film feeling dismayed, repulsed, and never wanting to see or think about the film again. The climax leaves many with the feeling that nothing positive has been affirmed or accomplished. But something has been accomplished, albeit at an unusually high price for what pretends to be a genre picture: Se7en negates a flawed philosophy—one held not only by William Somerset but a great many people—and this negation corrects Somerset’s derisive opinion of human beings and his moral neutrality with respect to their suffering. The character who, because of his seniority and aptitudes, is in the position to do the most good if motivated to do so changes a core value. Somerset concludes that it is better to fight against evil than to amass excuses why he cannot and should not bother. This he learns directly from David Mills, who is the film’s antagonist. The film’s message is a repudiation, rather than an endorsement, of nihilism.
The argument against nihilism
Any argument that seeks to demonstrate that Se7en is not nihilistic must grapple with the design of its themes, while answering the objections that are bound to arise in response to the assertions in contention. A refutation of the nihilism charge rests on five pillars:
1. The “authority of the film” presents, negotiates and transcends the individual, disparate belief systems of Somerset, Mills and serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) to construct an argument that neither apathy nor nihilism are viable moral philosophies with which to engage human society.
2. Somerset’s apathy is not arrived at by enlightened or sincere philosophical thinking, but rather is a coping mechanism he favors because it shields him from emotional turmoil and ethical responsibility. Therefore, his world view is not genuinely nihilistic but a rational response to his fear of suffering and the feelings they provoke.
3. A common misunderstanding is that John Doe and David Mills are the mirrored characters in Se7en. When it is understood that John Doe and William Somerset are in fact the mirrored characters, confusion regarding what the authority of the film endeavors to prove about Somerset’s beliefs is more easily resolved.
4. A common misunderstanding is that John Doe is the antagonist in Se7en. When it is understood that Mills, rather than John Doe, is Somerset’s antagonist, the central argument of Se7en becomes more accessible.
5. The climax of Se7en directly dramatizes the consequences of Somerset’s belief system. The catastrophic consequences lead to Somerset’s transformation, and the coda is the primary vehicle by which the authority of the film coveys its meaning to the spectator.
Authority of the film
The “authority of the film” is here defined as the creative, guiding intelligence that constructs its essential argument; it structures a narrative based on a premise that strives to illustrate a point by demonstrating transformation in a protagonist. It manifests most clearly when it clarifies what message or belief a viewer is to take away from the experience of watching the film. The belief the filmmakers wish to impart can be said to be “endorsed” by the authority of the film; the film exists to make this point. The authority is no single element but the aggregation of many constituents that strive to impart this meaning to a spectator and may include everything from the sequence in which conflicts are organized to where emphasis is placed in cinematic compositions and the way in which pivotal scenes are choreographed. The authority conveys meaning systematically, intuitively and, in the case of Se7en, explicitly.
Se7en is meticulously constructed to convince the spectator that one set of beliefs is superior to another. This is more easily established by examining the conclusion the film arrives at contingent upon its premise. Se7en does not depart radically from structural conventions, so it is proper to examine it the same way we examine traditional cinematic narratives—in terms of its “A leads to B” premise, and in consideration of how the protagonist, Somerset, is transformed by direct engagement with an antagonist, Mills.
In the film’s coda, Somerset suggests his change to the Captain and then directly communicates it to the audience. First, he implies to the Captain that he is reconsidering his retirement, something to which he has looked desperately forward. Then, in a crucial, direct transmission to the audience, Somerset recants his previously established belief that it is safer to do nothing than something to combat the societal degeneracy that confounds him. He now believes the world is “worth fighting for.” This philosophy does not fall out of a tree; it is the philosophy advocated by Mills, and one Somerset has disputed for the entirety of the narrative.
Se7en arrives at Somerset’s epiphany after strenuously arguing that a belief system that justifies indifference is not beneficial because it “leads to” enormous suffering, not only for Mills, Tracy, and their unborn child, but even for the man who clings to this philosophy. Beliefs that exonerate apathy are demonstrated within the narrative to be more harmful than beneficial to society. The film shows us this is so, and in the coda Somerset articulates that he recognizes this is so.
The entire film is structured to arrive at this conclusion. In Act I, the spectator is shown that Somerset favors a philosophy of apathy and that by holding it he derives peace of mind. He suffers less because he adopts a conceptual rather than visceral relationship to human suffering. He does not struggle to explain the injustice in the world but accepts it as the inherent nature of a society over which he has no control. This belief attenuates the effort he exerts to capture John Doe, who embodies Somerset’s generalized view of a depraved humanity. Somerset also discourages the impulse of Mills to judge, label and combat this representation of evil.
In Act II, Somerset comes into repeated conflict with Mills over ideological beliefs. Mills believes the opposite of what Somerset believes and questions the value of adopting apathy as a world view. Somerset continues to retain his beliefs and to criticize Mills’ idealistic, “naïve” view that with diligence and effort they can apprehend Doe before the pattern is complete.
Late in Act II, Mills assertively confronts Somerset on the origin and authenticity of his beliefs that justify apathy, and Somerset confesses that he holds these beliefs but cannot defend them as a philosophy. Somerset does not believe what he believes as a result of deep theoretical rumination, but because to hold these beliefs is emotionally less costly to him. The beliefs are constructed as a wall between himself and a painful experience of human suffering. Additionally, something quite interesting happens to Somerset: by his own admission a “disagreeable” man with few or no friends, he violates one of his precepts and involuntarily develops emotional attachments to Mills and his wife, Tracy. If harm were to come to these individuals, it would activate in Somerset more emotional pain than he ordinarily experiences when exposed to human suffering.
In the climax of Se7en, Somerset consciously or unconsciously facilitates the completion of Doe’s design and suffers when Mills, Tracy and their unborn child are irrevocably injured by John Doe. As a direct result of realizations produced by these excruciating events, Somerset renounces the indifference he has previously justified, then adopts Mills’ view that he bears a direct duty to attempt to ameliorate human suffering.
This can be restated as an “A leads to B” premise, where A is a set of causes and conditions that give rise to B, where B is an epiphany, realization or change of a core belief by the protagonist. A film can be about many things, but the “A leads to B” equation describes what a film argues. Based on how Se7en is structured and how the protagonist, Somerset, is changed as a direct result of causes and conditions he encounters, the premise of Se7en could be said to be “An apathetic detective’s partnership with a highly motivated detective who opposes his apathy, as they attempt to apprehend a serial killer, leads the apathetic detective to repudiate apathy as a proper response to the problem of evil and suffering.”
That Somerset is the protagonist of Se7en is one point upon which the writer, director and actors agree. The film opens and closes with Somerset. As a direct result of causes set into motion by his collision with Mills, in conjunction with exacerbating constituents, Somerset renounces the core belief he symbolically embodies. Although Mills can be said to “be changed” by causes and conditions present in the narrative, his core beliefs do not change, nor does he choose his change voluntarily; his transformation is forced upon him against his will.
People sometimes ask rhetorically why there has to be so much destruction in Se7en; why must Tracy, Mills and their unborn child suffer horribly for this film to complete its argument? The answer is implicit in the temperament of its protagonist. Somerset is not motivated to rethink this philosophy by generalized suffering because his philosophy is designed to interpret suffering as an affirmation rather than a negation of his philosophy. But when he becomes emotionally attached to Mills and Tracy, and they suffer, and he suffers because they suffer, his relationship to suffering is altered. He must ask himself the question, “What if any responsibility do I bear for this outcome?” Somerset’s change is contingent upon the magnitude of damage done to people he cares about in the context of circumstances he is in the power to change; no lesser calamity could possibly activate so momentous a change in a man this attached to the philosophy that the authority of the film indicts.
The origins and dissection of Somerset’s philosophy
If Se7en appears to contains traces of nihilism, it is because it explores a belief system that champions apathy and indifference. One of Se7en’s most ingenious deceptions is to present Somerset’s philosophy as an appealing set of beliefs held by an impressive and cerebral man. Somerset is so intelligent that he knows how to disguise a fear of psychic pain as a philosophy so enlightened, thoroughly considered, impartial and alluring that Mills appears primitive, simplistic and ignorant by comparison for holding the opposite view. Se7en is Kubrickesque in that when it lies, it lies as truthfully as it possibly can, without the barest hint of a smirk. It could be said that the authority of the film defers to Somerset for almost two complete acts before it reveals it’s true intention. Until the pivotal reversal occurs and Mills unveils Somerset’s philosophy as a coping mechanism of no benefit to any human being but Somerset, there are few clues that it is Somerset’s philosophy that is under scrutiny. Then we see that the philosophy itself is rather ugly. Somerset believes that society is so debased that it is senseless to care about human beings or fight the evils that plague them. He clings to these beliefs because disengagement spares him the dual burdens of pain and moral obligation.
When discussing Somerset’s philosophy, it’s important to draw a distinction between the philosophy he propounds and the underlying fears upon which the philosophy is predicated. He proclaims that he holds certain beliefs because they are enlightened, but it is gradually revealed that he holds them because the world frightens him.
Until late in Act II, Somerset continues to defend his existential apathy. Because Somerset is more eloquent than Mills, there is an appearance created in Acts I and II that the authority of the film may favor Somerset’s perspective of human beings as hopelessly confused and unworthy. However, evidence in the film suggests Somerset does not believe in moral relativism out of conviction but rather because proclaiming such beliefs abdicates him of the obligation to expose himself to harm in the course of fulfilling his ethical obligation to fight against what is wrong. Somerset is highly intelligent and uses the best means at his disposal to exonerate his apathy—in this case, a philosophy that appears rigorously considered and self-effacing.
Somerset’s repeated requests to be excused from the case are one signal that his preference for apathy is a byproduct of self-preservation. We learn from the Captain that Somerset has a reputation for leaving “unfinished business.” Further crevices appear in Somerset’s belief system when we are exposed to John Doe’s diaries, and hear Somerset read aloud words authored by a misanthrope that appear, on the surface, to express Somerset’s own contempt for humanity.
Whether Somerset holds these beliefs out of conviction or convenience is important. By revealing that Somerset promotes this philosophy for a reason other than the one he states, the authority of the film sheds doubt on the presumed motivation for much of Somerset’s speech and behavior. He is no longer a conscientious objector or nihilist, but a scared human being. His philosophy is not a byproduct of enlightenment. He adopts it in pursuit of an objective: to absolve himself of guilt and ethical obligation. Somerset wants to be happy, and detachment is his strategic mechanism. The true consequences to himself and others of holding these beliefs are the subject of Act III.
The mirroring of Somerset and John Doe
A common response to a first viewing of Se7en is to conclude that Mills and John Doe are similar (i.e., doubles), and that Somerset is distinguished from either by his wisdom, elegance and ruthless clarity about human nature.2 The meaning of the film will be lost on people who misunderstand this to be the case. Somerset and John Doe are the mirrored characters.
What in fact does John Doe believe? He believes humans are “sick, ridiculous puppets,” immoral, irredeemable and all alike. In his mind there is “a sin on every street corner.” He claims to believe he too has a purpose: to act on God’s behalf to punish sinners in such a spectacular way that he will become famous and his efforts reproduced by others. But in Doe’s lair and during Mills’ interrogation of Doe we are provided evidence of less lofty motives. Doe derives gratification from inflicting and documenting pain. He is a narcissistic psychopath who craves recognition and remembrance, ostensibly from the human masses he disdains. Doe’s contradictions are ubiquitous; nevertheless, they are still beliefs—selfish desires disguised as a philosophy of Divine Intervention. We also realize that his selection of victims is capricious and symbolic, rather than particularized and coherent. He doesn’t “turn each sin against the sinner” but targets victims whose superficial features evoke a sin and, in the case of Mills, chooses a victim for extremely private reasons. He will also murder people—Tracy and her unborn child—whose sinfulness is not established because his infatuation with the ingenuity of “the whole complete act” takes precedence over moral cohesion. He believes the ends justify the means.
Proponents of the Doe/Mills theory3 argue that they are mirrored because they believe that which they believe fanatically, believe the ends justify the means, are dichotomous and simplistic in their determination of what is right and wrong, and resort to violence to achieve their goals. Mills is a manifestation of the same disease and discounted as a serious moral force because two wrongs don’t make a right. Somerset, in this interpretation, is singled out as evolved and ethically superior because he condemns and avoids displaying the destructive emotions that ultimately destroy Mills and Doe.
This argument is itself nihilistic because it makes no credible distinction between John Doe’s crimes and Mills’ efforts to stop them, nor even between John Doe’s status as a killer who preys on innocent strangers and Mills status as a police detective whose vocation is to incarcerate killers and prevent killings. There follows the implied assumption that the spectator and society as depicted in the film lack the moral capital to declare that Doe’s crimes are wrong, and that Mills has no legitimate right to label them evil and no duty to attempt to avert more killings by the means he employs. In order to make this case, the magnitude of Mills’ anger must be exaggerated, as Doe proposes, to “wrath” so it can shoulder the burden this tenuous argument places on Mills to embody an evil commensurate with Doe’s. Advocates of this theory draw a theoretical analogy between Mills’ aggression and Doe’s crimes which are both assumed to be seeds of the same spore and an affront to the enlightened civility Somerset represents. The idea we are not entitled to state outright that Doe’s murders are wrong, or even worse than Mills’ attempts to stop them, is to dispense with assumptions we are wholly entitled to make lest we permit moral relativism to reach comedic proportions. No moral equivalence can be convincingly drawn between Mills’ pursuit of John Doe and John Doe’s persecution of innocents. To suggest no human being is “innocent” is to adopt Doe’s psychopathic codification of human beings as inherently sinful and deserving of punishment.4 Also, this interpretation conveniently disregards Somerset’s admission that—although he would never kill anyone to make this point—he has a similar distaste for human beings.
In order for Se7en to make its case, it is necessary that Mills elicit Doe’s anger by deconstructing the grandiosity of the murders to redefine them properly as the private expressions of a mediocrity desperate for renown rather than components in a divinely inspired sermon. The vehicle he uses to unveil Doe is moral outrage, not “wrath.” This is the only expression of condemnation Doe receives in the film, and it is this expression that provokes Doe to reveal the contradictions that unravel the philosophical foundation for his Grand Design. In accomplishing this feat, Mills eradicates any basis Somerset has to be impressed by Doe’s “philosophy.” This important contrast between Mills’ moral exasperation and Somerset’s silence on Doe’s motivation (“It’s dismissive to call him a lunatic”) illustrates how the detectives are different—a difference that would indicate it is a deception to believe, as proponents of the Mills/Doe theory seem to, that Somerset is morally superior to Mills; Somerset never condemns, even in private, that which merits condemnation. Therefore, any display of anger, when viewed in contrast to Somerset’s ethical passivity, will appear to be excessive.
Nor is there any basis to argue that Mills’ anger is disproportionate to the events that provoke it or, specifically, that Mills can be said to embody “wrath.”5 That John Doe is able to induce “wrath” in Mills by slaughtering his wife and child is not convincing evidence that Mills is inherently wrathful; it suggests only that he is not extraordinary. We can’t say Mills is pathologically angry; all we can say is that he is more aggressive than Somerset wishes him to be, while keeping in mind that Somerset disapproves of nearly any expression of emotion, and has a personal motive to portray Mills as more violent than he is to self-validate private beliefs and consciously discourage Mills from engaging in behaviors that may expose Somerset, or his philosophy, to jeopardy. That Somerset and Doe both have an aversion to Mills because of the threat he poses to the moral credibility of their beliefs would tend to suggest they share insecurities.
It also presumes too much to suppose that Mills’ emotionalism is presented exclusively as a negative trait. Somerset may believe so, but the authority of the film suggests otherwise. Mills exhibits anger but that anger is produced by empathy for Doe’s past victims and a desire to prevent future homicides. We assess Mills’ conduct through the filter of Somerset’s evaluation, so his traits are deemed to be negative by a man predisposed to define them in this way (“We have to divorce ourselves of emotion no matter what” and, scornfully, “It’s impressive to see a man feed off his emotions”). Somerset discourages expressions that would make Mills seem fully contoured and is surprised to learn, for example, that he relates to animals and is, according to Tracy, “the funniest man I ever met.” Mills is the only character in the film who sustains and intimate relationship with another human being, or utters the word “love” without mockery. Mills is not purely anger but a blend of positive and negative emotions. Contrarily, the film suggests that Somerset’s lack of emotional literacy has cost him. By his own admission, people do not like him. He colleagues “can’t wait” until he is gone. His cold description of a relationship with a woman is divested of any sense of remorse or nostalgia. His advice to Tracy about whether to abort a pregnancy is poignant yet strangely lacking in empathy—it attempts not to comfort but frighten her. Se7en does not argue that emotional stoicism is a virtue; only Somerset does.
Furthermore, there are grounds to doubt that Doe targets Mills because he suspects Mills to be “wrathful”. Doe targets Mills before he knows anything more than that Mills is voracious to capture him. An ancillary benefit, from Somerset’s perspective, of adopting an attitude of indifference, is that he does not risk making enemies with a man like John Doe, to whom Somerset is apparently unthreatening because he does not overtly oppose Doe’s will. Somerset, free of personal attachments that can be destroyed in order to induce wrath, cannot be hurt in the same way as Mills. Somerset is called upon to play a different role in the culmination of the Grand Design, because Doe requires the passive cooperation of someone who is more intellectually curious to see how Doe will complete his “masterpiece” than humane in his drive to avert further suffering.
There is a gigantic distinction between Mills’ anger and John Doe’s anger, so it cannot be argued they are enjoined by their anger. Mills is emotional in the sense he knows what he is feeling at any given moment and is not afraid to express it—he expresses emotions other than anger. His anger is not fused, as it is in Doe, to entrenched, ideological rage produced by a disordered mind craving notoriety. Mills is emotionally diverse and responsive to circumstance, whereas Doe’s intellectualized misanthropy is showcased only through calculated violence he controls in private, and that is a metaphoric manifestation of Somerset’s fatalism and detached contempt for humans. The assumptions that affirm Somerset’s apathy bear underlying resemblance to Doe’s beliefs—that human beings are inadequate and contaminated by ignorance because they permit emotion and transitory desire to overrule reason and civility. This point is important: Although Doe and Somerset differ in mechanism of expression, they both believe human beings are morally indistinguishable from one another and collectively guilty:
Mills: “We are talking about people who are mentally ill [and] fucking crazy.”
Somerset: “No, no. We are talking about everyday life here…”
Mills: “You say ‘the problem with people is that they don’t care, so I don’t care about people.’”
Doe sees all human beings as sinful, and Somerset sees all human beings as selfish, ignorant, and lacking inherent value; he believes they punish themselves and is content to allow them to do so. Somerset finds it fascinating to observe, but not to prevent. His job is to “pick up the pieces.”
In the climax of the film, the belief systems endorsed by Doe and Somerset are revealed to be subjective preferences rather than authentic philosophies. Both men have disguised preferences as enlightened belief systems. John Doe purports to know and implement God’s will. Somerset professes to have transcended the messiness of human emotion. Just as the wholly unjustifiable murders of Tracy and the unborn child serve to coruscate any delusion that John Doe’s Grand Design is credibly predicated on an intelligible fundamentalist philosophy, to the extent Somerset and Doe are mirrored, any notion that their respective philosophies are anything other than manifestations of private desires implodes simultaneously.
It is more fruitful to hypothesize that what distinguishes Somerset from Doe is a conscience rather than to argue, as some have attempted, that the only thing that separates Doe from Mills is a police badge. Mills is not misanthropic, nor does he believe that human beings are morally indistinguishable from one another. He makes a distinction between those who are innocent, those who are mentally ill, and those who are evil. When Mills says he “cares”, he means that he cares enough to draw this distinction and, on the basis of making this distinction, form an opinion of who to fight against and who to fight for. Somerset believes, like John Doe, that there is no need to make this distinction because everyone is uniformly guilty.
Additionally, although it is true that for both Doe and Mills the ends justify the means, this is true—though less obviously so—of Somerset as well. His philosophy is predicated on the belief that indifference towards the suffering of others—the means—is a legitimate mechanism to repel emotional pain—the ends. Somerset, like Doe, demonstrates contradiction. Although he derides Mills for violating protocol, Somerset carries an illegal switchblade and bribes an F.B.I. agent to procure Doe’s library records. When Mills questions its legality, Somerset justifies it in this way: “Legal, illegal—these terms don’t apply.”
If Somerset is indeed the character whose views are to be embraced, why when questioned is he embarrassed to defend and explain why he holds them? He admits that he holds one set of beliefs because to hold another set of beliefs would provoke emotional pain. Although we may empathize with Somerset’s humility and despair, is this a sound basis for adopting and perpetuating a philosophy? Individuals spellbound by Somerset may be enraptured not by his beliefs but his presence and aptitudes. He produces valuable results when pressured to do so, most notably dislodging the identity of the killer. What is under scrutiny is not his skillfulness but a philosophy that undermines its usefulness, and a core belief that serves neither him, his partner, Tracy, nor the other victims of John Doe.
David Mills is the antagonist
Once it is understood that Somerset and Doe are the mirrored characters, it becomes easier to see that Mills is the antagonist of Se7en. This conclusion rests on a recognition of the film’s premise in conjunction with an understanding of which character is directly responsible for Somerset’s transformation.
Somerset only changes because specific causes and conditions set into motion in Acts I and II prepare him for a change that is brought to fruition in Act III. These conditions are all produced by David Mills. Absent Mills, there could be no change in Somerset.
Against Somerset’s wishes, he is partnered with David Mills. Mills is a detective who asks questions and states opinions. Mills questions Somerset’s beliefs, and this requires Somerset to contemplate and explain them. Once they are explained, Mills “cannot agree” that they are sincerely held beliefs that constitute a viable, worthwhile philosophy. On the contrary, Mills believes that his life has a purpose and that homicide investigation fulfils this purpose. He fights to get reassigned to an undesirable city because this affords him a greater opportunity to “do some good.” When he recognizes that Doe’s murders constitute an emerging pattern, he expresses a belief that the crimes are malevolent and that the killer must be apprehended to spare future lives. He believes that in some instances the ends justify the means. His violation of procedures brings him into conflict with Somerset. Eventually, Mills accumulates negative beliefs about Somerset’s apathy and indifference. Mills represents the moral contrast to the nihilism that is an involuntary byproduct of actualizing a philosophy of apathy.
Then, late in Act II, there arrives the critical inversion during which Somerset’s philosophy is attacked by Mills and exposed to be a psychological coping mechanism rooted in confusion and fear. Mills challenges Somerset’s indifference directly and speculates that Somerset has adopted beliefs that justify apathy as a convenience to insure his emotional tranquility and rationalize his withdrawal from the world. Somerset can neither deny this is true nor adequately defend his beliefs to Mills.
Somerset: “This isn’t going to have a happy ending. It’s not possible…”
Mills: “You know, 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’re going to be a hero. You want to be a champion. Well let me tell you: people don’t want a champion. They want to each cheeseburgers, play the Lotto and watch television.”
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 love than to earn it. It’s easier to beat a child than it is to raise it. Hell, love costs, takes effort, and work…”
Mills: “See, you should listen to yourself. You say ‘the problem with people is that they don’t care, so I don’t care about people.’ That makes no sense… The point is, that I don’t think you’re quitting because you believe these things you say. I don’t. I think you want to believe them because you’re quitting.”
Prior to this encounter Somerset creates an impression that his philosophy is grounded in reason, but the opposing view, expressed by Mills and which Somerset does not even attempt to dispute, is that these beliefs do not constitute an authentic philosophy. Somerset does not hold these beliefs out of conviction but to protect himself; the cost of not holding these beliefs would be emotional discomfort he cannot bear.
Following the inversion, we are shown that Somerset is upset by the things Mills has said to him. Mills is the only character in the film to challenge the core belief that Somerset ultimately repudiates. Furthermore, Mills not only indicts the beliefs as fraudulent, but embodies a philosophy in direct opposition to that proclaimed by Somerset. Contiguously, Somerset violates his philosophical code by forming an emotional attachment to Mills and his wife. Then, still clinging to his philosophy of indifference, Somerset participates in a sequence of events that leads to the destruction of people he has grown to respect.
That Mills is Somerset’s antagonist can also be established by a process of elimination. Who other than Mills can be said to be responsible for Somerset’s change? John Doe? Certainly not. For William Somerset, John Doe is nothing more than the physical manifestation of the degeneration that he already presumes to be the intrinsic nature of humankind; over the course of his career, Somerset has met thousands of John Does. As a result of people like John Doe, Somerset adopted his philosophy to begin with—Doe is not the antidote to, or refutation of, Somerset’s belief system but its cause and affirmation. Somerset interprets John Doe as living evidence that his core belief is correct! Does John Doe even once challenge, or give Somerset cause to challenge himself, the core belief that Somerset ultimately repudiates? Not only does Doe never challenge it, but it is in Doe’s best interest that Somerset practice apathy. Doe neither targets nor views Somerset as a threat to his design for this very reason—Somerset’s frigid intellectualism is an asset to John Doe. John Doe specifically exploits Somerset’s apathy to complete his design. Even if one were to fantastically argue that Somerset recognizes a distorted version of his own philosophy in Doe’s articulations, an equally strong counter-argument can be made that, if this is indeed the case, recognition only becomes possible because Mills has indirectly pointed this similarity out to Somerset.
If we were to remake Se7en and change only David Mills—rewrite him as a detective who never challenges Somerset’s core beliefs, does not embody a diametrically opposed strategy for synthesizing emotional pain and engaging human suffering, and make him such a sycophant that he does not cultivate Somerset’s admiration or affection—there could be no change in William Somerset. Somerset is changed as a result of his collision with Mills. He renounces his philosophy because he has experienced excruciating pain and guilt. He does not feel pain because of harm done to John Doe but because of harm done to Mills and Tracy, and worries that his apathy was a contributory factor. He experiences guilt, because Mills showed him a better set of beliefs and he failed to adopt them in time for them to be of benefit to David and Tracy Mills. Somerset adopts another philosophy only because he has been directly exposed to it—by Mills.
The clarification of the argument in the climax and coda
Acts I and II establish the philosophical issue in contention. In Act III the dogmatism is set aside and the consequences of Somerset’s beliefs are tested and explicitly rendered. As a result of the destruction they directly or indirectly produce, Somerset is transformed. By imputation, and in dependence upon all that has come before, the authority of the film endorses the transformation. The filmmakers have chosen to leave the audience with a very specific message; this message is the meaning of Se7en and reveals that this film exists for the purpose of persuasion.
By the arrival of the climax it is firmly established that Somerset’s philosophy of apathy is so entrenched that in order for it to be changed he will have to suffer onerously. He has spent seven days defending his beliefs, arguing why they are accurate perceptions of reality that constitute a well considered philosophy. For seven days he has justified disengagement from the suffering of the first five victims; because he has no emotional investment in the decedents, they remain in his mind symbolic “others.” For seven days he has expressed a desire to be excused from the case, and for seven days he has expressed curiosity and encrypted reverence for the fastidious ingenuity of these particular homicides. Tumbling into an existential syllogism, Somerset argues the schema will be completed because it must be completed—there is nothing he or Mills can do to stop it. Therefore, he is in the paradoxical position of having been entrusted, like Mills, to terminate a sequence of homicides that he believes are mythopoetic, larger than life, and inevitable: “This will go on and on and on”; “He’s two murders away from completing his masterpiece”; “This isn’t going to have a happy ending.”
The conflicts that arise between Somerset and Mills all revolve around the question of whether Doe’s cycle can be interrupted. Somerset’s insistence there is nothing they can do to prevent these crimes or capture this killer is both a byproduct of and pretext for apathy and ethical laxity. This belief also explains his censure of Mills for behaving as if the opposite is true. If Mills were to successfully avert the schematic before it is complete, this would constitute a refutation of the philosophy Somerset has used all along to justify his passive indifference.
When Somerset and Mills dispute this investigation, on the surface they are disputing core beliefs about the culpability of human beings, and whether evil is omnipresent and ubiquitous, or sporadic, mediocre and conquerable. Beneath the surface, however, they are disputing whether or not Somerset, in the context of his vocation, has the right to adopt apathy as a philosophy and still consider himself a decent human being.
If one accepts that Somerset is emotionally invested in the completion of the crimes because he has yoked the validity of entrenched beliefs to the idea that all seven homicides must occur, and that Mills is naïve for believing otherwise, then it’s possible to say that Somerset has a vested interest in the completion of Doe’s design because this will affirm beliefs, attacked by Mills, that Somerset is reluctant to abandon. Because the murders are reconstituted as symbolic validation or negation of opposing philosophies, whether they are completed or not will affirm or contravene private beliefs these men dispute which are diametrically opposed. If John Doe is stopped, this imperils the credibility of beliefs Somerset uses to rationalize his failure to try harder to prevent the killings in particular, and apathy in general. Because Mills has attacked Somerset personally for holding these beliefs, and because Somerset cannot defend them, the existential proof of his philosophy becomes contradictorily hinged to whether or not Doe can complete his design.
In the finale, Somerset’s beliefs cease to be mere abstractions and produce damaging real world consequences. Because he believes that which he believes, he consciously or unconsciously assists John Doe in the completion of the design. Somerset has every reason to presume there are two murders yet to occur, that Mills has been personally targeted (i.e., the photos discovered of Mills in Doe’s lair, in the company of photos of prior and future victims, Doe’s phone conversation with Mills), and that the trip to the field is a set-up. Earlier in the film, Doe issues a personal warning to Mills: “I feel like saying more but I don’t want to ruin the surprise.” Prior to the car ride Somerset expresses doubt that Doe is merely leading them to “two more dead.” Note the epigraph that opens this essay, in which Doe slips up by confessing that he has so far murdered only five. Doe flagrantly admits that they are riding into a trap and insinuates that one or both detectives may die:
Mills: “We aren’t just going to pick up two more bodies, are we, John? That wouldn’t be shocking enough.”
Doe: “Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer. When this is over, you’re going to be remembered…”
When no bodies are discovered in the field, and when the box arrives, promptly at seven p.m., there is no explanation other than that the Design is in progress. Many spectators initially speculate the box contains a bomb. Somerset does not fear this, or he would not approach and open the box. Although it is not possible to predict what is inside the box, it is reasonable to assume that it is a catalyst for finalization of “the whole complete act.” Yet, Somerset plays precisely the role that Doe asks of him, turning his prediction of an unhappy ending into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
One reason Fincher (the filmic authority) blocks the finale as he does is to place Somerset in the excruciating position of having to choose whether or not to open the box, and what to do after he does. Mills would certainly open the box; however, because Somerset is wiser, there is a question of whether he will or won’t. Fincher shows us the deliberation—not fear—on Somerset’s face before he opens it. By situating the protagonist in this predicament Fincher crystallizes the conflict between Somerset’s investment in a tenuous philosophy and his suppressed humanity. The completion or failure of the design rests in Somerset’s hands, and he complies with Doe’s instructions.
What happens next is well known.
Certain objections are bound to arise at this juncture. Some may argue that because Mills fails to escape fulfilling John Doe’s purpose for him that the authority of the film cannot be said to endorse the idea that Mills is superior to Somerset for believing apathy is not a solution, evil must be judged, and that he has a purpose he wishes to fulfill.
A response to this objection is to point out how the narrative strongly suggests it is the failure of Somerset that leads Mills into this violent paradox—and that Somerset actually recognizes this is so. Somerset’s repudiation of a core value, arriving as it does immediately after tragic events, signals not merely that he has casually decided to change his mind, but demonstrates an actual consciousness of guilt that he is partially to blame for what has transpired. One conclusion that may be inferred from the coda is that Somerset recognizes that things might have turned out differently if he held Mills’ philosophy of moral vigilance instead of his own. Secondly, it is not credible to theorize that Mills “fails” because he does not fail alone; Somerset fails as well, and plays a pivotal role in this outcome—not merely because of his behavior in the field but his behavior all along. Because Mills’ philosophy is predicated on the obligation of mutual cooperation, Somerset must cooperate with Mills in order for Mills to succeed. Mills is dependent upon Somerset to behave, in the climax, as if he too has the same purpose as Mills and as much at stake, and Somerset fails in this obligation.
Viewers who interpret the moment when Mills shoots Doe as a cataclysmic failure of Mills’ beliefs alone, independent of Somerset’s influence over the avalanche of events that lead Mills to this abyss, are compartmentalizing this scene as if it is not directly produced by the thematic continuum of causes that is its antecedent. Somerset, not Mills, is the film’s protagonist. When the three men set out for the field, Mills ceases to be an agent in shaping the course of events and becomes part of the outcome Somerset has predicted and inadvertently sanctions. The climax is fixated exclusively on the sincerity of these philosophies and the consequences of holding them. Somerset’s experience is greater, so his moral responsibility is significant and he is apportioned, by the filmmaking itself, a greater degree of authority over, and responsibility for, the outcome of events.
From a structural standpoint, it cannot fall to Mills, the antagonist, to unify the film’s themes in the resolution. Nor, were Mills to spare Doe’s life, would it negate or affirm the question at issue, since Mills’ immediate dilemma must negotiate the possibility of personal restraint in the face of violence so personally devastating that his response to it can be nothing other than emotional. Se7en does not attempt to argue Mills is superhuman; merely that his view is more likely to positively shape society than Somerset’s belief that the solution to private turmoil is moral abdication and escape. Mills’ failure to spare Doe’s life is not a new evolution in the film’s theme, merely a dire consequence of the film’s construction upon a single theme established at the outset and developed continuously. Although Mills pulls the trigger, Somerset cocks the gun.
It is not necessary that Mills spare Doe’s life in order for it to be fundamentally true that Mills is correct to believe apathy is not a solution and that his life has a purpose. Somerset is less damaged by the outcome than Mills, but there is no basis to conclude that this represents the triumph of one belief system over another. Somerset’s beliefs are predicated on a wish that he not come to physical or emotional harm and they have served the first purpose, but he is not happy that they have; he is not content with the results of holding his beliefs and rejects them for this very reason. He has learned not merely that apathy can lead to suffering but that the suffering of others can cause suffering to himself. Somerset’s philosophy does not even serve Somerset.
Finally, why is Se7en constructed to convince the spectator that Somerset is mistaken to hold the philosophy he propitiates and is improved by revoking and substituting it with a belief adequately defended by Mills if, as proponents of the Mills/Doe theory believe, what the filmmakers actually seek to convey is that Somerset and the beliefs he personifies are an antidote to the deterioration of society portrayed in the film? It makes no sense that Somerset would voluntarily adopt views Mills acclaims if the perspective of the filmmakers, and this protagonist, is that Mills and Doe are byproducts of the same pestilence. If Somerset, in the film’s coda, is still sincerely convinced that indifference is preferable to tenacious engagement he would not repudiate it on the spot. Se7en is not structured to argue that Somerset holds superior beliefs; it argues that he holds morally problematic beliefs and is improved by recognizing they are deficient. It argues that Somerset’s intellectual detachment is a trait to be disavowed rather than an attribute to be celebrated and adopted by society at large.
Another objection may be that in spite of Somerset’s self-confessed apathy, intellectual infatuation with Doe’s crimes and apparent knowledge he and Mills are being ambushed, it presumes too much to assert that he can or should do anything other than he does in the climax or that, even if he did, he could not avert the outcome. To wit, even if he does not open the box, John Doe can still procure the same results by verbally relaying to Mills what is in the box; he can still induce wrath.
Somerset’s actions in the finale of Se7en must fairly be judged as components of an entrenched belief system, which is to say he is habituated by pre-existing beliefs to react in a limited way and cannot be expected to demonstrate spontaneous ingenuity in how he copes with fantastically unpredictable circumstances. The authority of the film does not indict Somerset for an inability to change in the climax; rather, it takes a diagnostic approach in its examination of why he has constructed such beliefs and how their influence over his behavior reaps unanticipated consequences. Se7en unfolds in seven days, and its purpose is ruthless in that it is not interested in changing Somerset in time to save David Mills; on the contrary, it is designed so that transformation of Somerset is contingent upon the sacrifice of its likeable characters.
Showdown in the field
Rather than speculate what Somerset might do differently in the climax, let’s examine what he does.
One byproduct of Somerset’s apathy is that he sees the murders as an existential proof of his own belief system rather than individual acts of violence he relates to with compassion. It is established that he is curious about how the scheme will end, and believes there is nothing he can do to avert its completion. He has reason to suspect that the culmination of the design rests on two murders yet to occur that will take place in this field where only three men stand. He knows this information before they reach the field. As the senior detective on the scene, he has the authority to abort the excursion. He does not have an obligation to act in accord with John Doe’s wishes. In spite of this, he indulges John Doe. In spite of all this, Somerset takes custody of, and opens, the box. John Doe doesn’t “have the upper hand”; Somerset permits him to have the upper hand. Even though Somerset does not convey to Mills what is inside the box, his behavior after opening attests to the veracity of what Doe claims is in the box. Somerset’s appeal to Mills to exercise restraint—“Give me the gun, David. David, if you kill him, he will win”—is an intellectual plea that unwittingly honors the legitimacy of Doe’s design rather than functions as a heartfelt identification with Mills’ torment; therefore, it is unlikely to prove persuasive to Mills in circumstances that transcend rationalism.
The outcome is not “inevitable” but Somerset, in accord with his beliefs, behaves as if it is inevitable even though he has ample cause and reasonable opportunity to avert, or attempt to avert, completion. He does not discourage the outcome. He cannot later deny that he possessed important information that something terrible would happen in the field involving him or Mills. Nor can he later assert that he took actions to prevent harm that he reasonably presumed could come to himself or to Mills. Somerset’s behavior in the climax is a direct result of disengagement and curiosity produced by apathy and a general lack of consideration for cause and effect where human life is at stake, characterized earlier in the film by Mills as an indifference towards human suffering.
It’s quite interesting that when Mills aims his gun at John Doe, Somerset does not remain silent because the outcome is, as he has maintained all along, inevitable, and there is nothing he can do to prevent Mills from firing. On the contrary, he urges Mills not to shoot because he believes the outcome can be averted. Somerset recognizes that Mills has the choice to kill or not to kill, just as Somerset has had choices all along, responsibility for which he abdicated on the grounds that his drug of choice is apathy. He has, for example, a choice to encourage or discourage Mills’ tenacity, a choice to help or not help Mills chase and capture John Doe, a choice to obey or disobey John Doe’s instructions, a choice to open or not open the box. Suddenly, he confesses a belief that what human beings do can alter the outcome of atrocious events.
It’s irrelevant that in theory the identical outcome might be brought about by means other than Somerset’s participation, because Se7en’s fascination is that they are in fact brought about with the protagonist’s complicity, lubricated by an apathy whose consequences Somerset appears to comprehend immediately after opening the box. Somerset is the protagonist and it is his beliefs, and their influence over his behavior and the welfare of other characters, that is the subject of the movie.
One intriguing way of interpreting the climactic scene is as an allegorical passion play performed exclusively for Somerset in which his darkest impulses and demons are revealed in the starkest possible terms. Just as Mills cannot be said to embody Wrath, it’s not believable that Doe’s sin is Envy or that he is telling the truth when he confesses it and requests atonement. Doe, who is “independently wealthy”, does not express any desire other than post-mortem infamy; this complete lack of desire is why he does not fear death. John Doe’s sin, in the context of how he defines sin, is Pride. But in the finale, John Doe arises as an exteriorized manifestation of Somerset’s suppressed jealousy of Mills, pleading for Mills—who arises as a symbolic manifestation of Somerset’s suppressed self-hatred and rage at Everyman (thus, “John Doe”)—to put him out of his misery. Somerset is forced to witness this as retribution, because he is largely responsible for this escalation. Somerset brings this play into existence and it speaks to him directly. Like a mirror, it reflects his innermost self. Envy begs Wrath for euthanasia. Wrath complies and, like a subject without an object, self-annihilates. Once Somerset’s anger and jealousy are expunged, Somerset is resurrected with self-knowledge and a clearer sense of purpose. He is able to adopt Mills’ philosophy because envy and anger no longer separate him from his innate wisdom. This explication rhymes with earlier scenes in which it is inferred Somerset suppresses both emotions. Se7en deals with the synthesis of feelings and each of the seven deadly sins is, or is directly dependent upon, a distorted emotion related either to desire or it’s opposite, aversion. Envy and Wrath are directly opposing delusions that, when residing within a single individual, create excruciating anxiety and confusion that might tempt one to produce precisely the type of coping mechanism Somerset invents for himself: one that pretends to have transcended emotion. Apathy is emotion in denial. A man who is terrified of his own emotions has an obvious incentive to concoct a philosophy that forbids their expression and discourages behavior that might provoke them to arise.
Somerset maintains this mechanism until he is personally injured by holding it, and this only occurs when people he is attached to become victims of the evil he is indifferent towards. An extreme interpretation is that Mills is martyred by the eighth sin of apathy. Se7en argues that indifference only appears to be a harmless doctrine; it is easily held until it hurts so much it must be dropped. For this reason much suffering must occur in the climax of Se7en; Somerset will continue to hold these beliefs until holding them causes more pain than pleasure. This pain triggers the recognition that his philosophy is no longer harmless but morally indefensible.
Somerset’s repudiation of his philosophy in the coda is his change, and his change reveals the purpose of the film. Se7en argues that it is a moral failure to disguise indifference as a rational philosophy for the purpose of private contentment because of the harm to everyone else. Thus, Se7en affirms a conventional moral ideal—the call to action against that which society, by consensus, has deemed wrong. Caring is preferable to not caring. The reason John Doe prefers Somerset to Mills is because Somerset doesn’t care. Men like William Somerset make it easier for men like John Doe.
Fortunately, because Somerset is equipped with many attributes, the importance of his transformation is exponential. His renunciation of apathy indicates the potential for a true, rather than artificial, enlightenment that is less clearly present in Mills. Mills understands the concept of moral obligation but his wisdom is obscured by youth, inexperience, impatience and immaturity. Mills may one day have made a great detective. Somerset once held the incorrect view but now, holding the correct view, is in a position to accomplish more with the realization Mills has bestowed upon him.
In defense of the spectator, although Se7en argues a universal idea, it does so intellectually and by imputation. Schindler’s List argues the same point—once suffering is recognized by an individual in a position to assuage it, neutrality as a personal refuge is morally untenable—and argues it in such a way that a young child can perceive the message. Schindler’s transformation occurs early, rather than in the dénouement; cause and effect is clearly established and the remainder of the film is devoted to examining the positive results produced by Schindler’s change. This is not true of Se7en, where, although the message is clear, the link between a cause and its effect is abstract, and the visceral excruciation the climax produces partially obscures an intellectual insight articulated by the protagonist in the final five seconds of the film. For this reason the coda must be, and is, definitive in its identification of Somerset’s transformation. There is no room left in Se7en to illustrate the consequences of Somerset’s change. For this reason it is difficult for many people to understand that something of value has been accomplished.
Because Se7en attempts to persuade the viewer that apathy, indifference, and the nihilism they produce are terrible for society, it’s not proper to call it a nihilistic work, a movie with no discernible purpose, or a celebration of meaninglessness. It means something very specific. The film is constructed to convince spectators of one thing and one thing only. Se7en does not contain a single scene, sound or image that is not germane to its central debate about whether or not human beings have a duty to fight for the rights of other human beings to live free from prejudice, ignorance, oppression and violence. Mills believes he has this obligation; Somerset believes he has no such obligation. The authority of the film then demonstrates that Somerset’s apathy contributes to the destruction of decent people and results in psychological pain to the individual who is apathetic. Somerset, recognizing that his philosophy poses a disproportionate hazard to human welfare and, therefore, cannot be justified by the peace of mind it may once have brought to himself, repudiates his philosophy and endorses another—perpetuated and forcefully argued by Mills—that opposes nihilism.
If Se7en were to argue that people should adopt Somerset’s philosophy because an individual purged of emotional attachments and moral outrage cannot be wounded or disappointed as easily as one who engages the world intimately, and have a right to do so regardless of the consequences, Se7en would be a nihilistic film propitiating a nihilistic set of beliefs. But Se7en argues that apathy, however fancifully philosophized, is antithetical to the rights and interests of society and must, for the welfare of self and others, be abandoned.
My deepest thanks to James Moran and Peter Gelderblom for their valuable insights, encouragement and helpful advice.
1. A sampling of opinions from amateur and professional critics discussing the film: “Putrid, disgusting, formless, meaningless and needlessly excessive” (Amazon.com); “Stylish but nihilistic in the extreme” (Epinions.com); “Cynical and nihilistic” (movieforums.com); “I felt dirty when I left the theater… I don’t have to see that movie to know that this world is totally out of whack. Seeing the movie simply made me feel sick… It’s not good for our brains or our hearts.” (hollywoodjesus.com); “The bottom line is a cliched script that manages to be both pretentious and ultimately meaningless at the same time… just plain mean” (movies.nush.net). Reviewers, even in the context of largely positive critiques, expressed similar concerns: “[Screenwriter] Walker’s finale…feels like an act of treachery against the viewer. It undoes the limited faith we’ve invested in the story” (Desson Howe); “Ugly, derivative, pointless… There is nothing behind [it]… this is pathology of the ugliest kind” (Phil John); “…the ending and its epilogue are breathtakingly nihilistic and take away the will to live” (John Barker); “Its director is an aesthetician of rot and entropy” (Amy Taubin); “…don’t look for a lot of deep social commentary” (Christopher Null); “But still, the question that always arises from a film that seems to offer no hope: Why did they make it?” (D. K. Holm, who does attempt to answer this question).
2. This idea that Somerset is a morally transcendent contrast to Mills, and that Somerset earnestly seeks to capture John Doe, is proposed by many reviewers, often in nearly identical terms: “Mills is all brawn and little brain. Somerset, on the other hand, spends long hours in the library researching Dante and Chaucer, looking for clues that will enable him to prevent the next killing” (James Bernardinelli); “Mills is a cocky hothead who needs tempering, while Somerset is a bookworm and every bit as methodical in his own way as the killer they are tracking” (Chris Hicks); Writer Rob Lund, in the process of comparing the film with 8mm, refers to Somerset as Se7en’s “moral anchor.” Stephen Farber writes of Freeman’s “crucial” “moral presence” and comments, “What Freeman brings to the movie is humanity at the heart of a nightmare…. Freeman convinces us that Somerset still cares deeply about the atrocities he’s witnessed. That sense of sadness and concern makes the movie something more than a freak show.”
3. For an example, see Anne Marie Olesen’s thoughtful piece “Film as Metaphor: Cannibalism and the Serial killer as Metaphors for Transgression” in P.O.V. She writes, “The bar scene anticipates the final scene with a tragic resonance, but it also stresses the dominant figure or structure of the film: the mirroring of David Mills and John Doe.” Her argument is based on the spatial arrangements of climactic compositions. However, often when a reviewer suggests Somerset is the film’s moral compass, that Mills is out of control, and that John Doe may have a point or succeeds as a result of Mills’ wrath, the Mills/Doe modality is subtly proposed.
4. In critiques, this idea that Somerset is enlightened is sometimes paradoxically coupled with the suggestion John Doe’s crimes may somehow be legitimate: “The more we get to know [John Doe] through the eyes of Detective Sommerset [sic] and Mills, the more morbidly sensible he becomes though” (Rob Lund). Of particular fascination is some of the Christian-based criticism of the film. Seth Studer, who has an online column called “Christian Cinema,” writes: “Mills is thick-headed, unwilling to hear Doe’s explanation…. Somerset, on the other hand, is quiet and attentive as Doe explains himself…. He cannot get past the possibility that Doe is right. Is Doe right? Is his message true? Are his horrible fruits good fruits? I don’t want to answer those questions… but go read the Book of Judges, read of those prophets, and decide for yourself. Christ said to judge them by their fruits, and John Doe’s fruits seem awful. But if a wolf can wear sheep’s clothing, can a sheep hide beneath wolf-skin?” One comment at hollywoodjesus.com reads: “Some people need the movie’s reminder”; another: “The people [Doe] killed, for the most part, may be the scum of the earth. However, he didn’t have any right to do what he did.”
5. Although mainstream critics were generally cautious not to draw too many ideological conclusions from the climax of the film, the ideas that Mills is wrathful, is punished for his wrathfulness, and that his execution of Doe illustrates that Somerset is essentially correct are widespread among spectators discussing the film. An unsigned but passionate commentary at “Hierarchy” reads: “I came to the observation that this film is about a total loss of control… Mills…did indeed commit wrath… Mills [is] seeking retribution for the murdered and silently enjoying the suffering of the murderer… The light is shown in Somerset, the darkness in John Doe, and Mills is the middle ground… When asked to become wrath, it was more like a declaration of that which was already there. Often it is overlooked that the murderer is the winner.” From a review at CineFile: “…the fundamental opposition between emotion/faith (Mills) and logic/despair (Somerset/John Doe) is apparently resolved in favour of the latter when Mills in an act of wrath kills Doe.” Lucia Bozzola, reviewing the film at movies.nush.net writes, “Circumspect old-timer Morgan Freeman’s dedication and tyro Brad Pitt’s fury both mirror the telling responses of their characters, and reveal signs of how tenuous the line is between cop and killer.” At a Web site called Tokyo Tales a blogger weighs in on the meaning of the climax, arguing that by enacting the sin of wrath Mills “[validates] Doe’s commentary on the wickedness of man.” Reviewer Rob Gonsalves writes that the film is not “so much about catching the killer as about how one cop’s worldview is validated, to the despair of his partner.” Students can even purchase a term paper online that argues Mills is “brash, full of anger” and succumbs to a killer who is “trying to send out a message of how despicable and ugly mankind has become.” In a complex and impressive examination of the film’s ideology, Steve Ferrier interprets Se7en as a “right wing” examination of “a world full of sin”: “Se7en however is a film that basically marginalizes everyone except for those with intellect. This is shown in the characterization of Somerset… By refusing to listen to other perspectives, Mills is punished by the film’s ideology at the end when he is compelled to end Doe’s sermon by killing him and thus committing the sin of wrath…. Characters such as Mills are punished by Se7en’s prevailing ideology as they show no intellectual rigor towards common values that society bases its traditions on. ” Ferrier interprets the ending as “overtly dark and pessimistic,” “presenting us with no real hope for the future.”
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
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