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.”