Written by Andrew Kevin Walker
Directed by David Fincher
There is a depth of humanity in Seven, hidden beneath the stylized neo-noir aftermath of violence that its detectives stumble across in crime scene after crime scene. David Fincher movies often get swallowed up in the fervor over aesthetics and jolting set pieces that we often forget the richly developed characters that make up his world. Detectives Somerset & Mills and Mills’s wife Tracy are beautifully written roles performed by actors who understand nuance’s power. The infamous finale of Seven, a scene that has somewhat become a parody in the pop culture in the ensuing decades, almost brought me to tears this time around. I empathized with the trio of protagonists so that this final obscenity tore right through me.
Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) has six days to go until he retires from the police force of an unnamed decaying city where he works homicide. While observing the crime scene of an obese man who appears to have choked to death on food, he meets Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), a new member of the force who has just moved from upstate for this more significant opportunity. The corpse was bound at the wrists and feet, which clearly indicates he was force-fed until dead. The murder of a wealthy defense attorney bled to death after having a pound of flesh cut from him blows up in the media the next day. Somerset and Mills discover that the name of one of the Seven Deadly Sins has been scrawled somewhere at each crime scene, implying that their killer is just getting started with his spectacle.
It had been a while since I’d sat down and watched Seven, and I had forgotten all of the character moments and conversations between Somerset and Mills. What most viewers probably remember are the gruesome crime scenes, which are definitely unforgettable. But none of that means anything without the conflict & relationship between the detectives. They are both on opposite ends of their careers and have divergent opinions about the nature of evil in the world.
Mills is brash & cocky and believes that these diabolical crimes are the work of a unique insane mind, unlike the rest of mankind. Somerset adheres to the idea that the killer is just like everyone else, that the entire world is becoming increasingly darker & more sinister. Mills believes that in his role as a member of the police, he can fight back the tide of darkness & Somerset has convinced himself that it is beyond his power and retirement can provide him solace in the twilight of mankind.
There are pockets of warmth sprinkled throughout this harrowing rain-soaked odyssey. The dinner sequence where Somerset meets Tracy (Gwenyth Paltrow) and shares a meal with the couple is beautifully done. The music of Marvin Gaye playing in the background, the warm lighting, and Somerset’s glimpse of a life he could have had are all beacons in the darkness. The diner scene where Tracy confides her fears of the city to Somerset is another deeply human moment of vulnerability. It’s this scene where Somerset tells his story of the relationship and child he almost had, revealing this as the moment he gave up on believing life could be something greater. Even the simplicity of the library scene, Bach playing on the security guards’ boom box while the older detective searches the stacks, allows us a moment’s escape from the bleakness of the world outside.
These rays of light give us hope as we watch, believing that our heroes will somehow solve this crime and end the nightmare. However, that isn’t the story being told here. Seven is ultimately the tragedy of Somerset & Mills’ pride. They both seem to be intent on proving the other wrong, so much so that they get baited into John Doe’s game. In the end, John Doe’s philosophy is seemingly proven right, that people are will likely sin and become corrupted. However, Doe believes there is a choice involved while Somerset & Mills, who diverge on the roots of evil, both believe there is an inevitability to things. Doe knows Mills has to make a choice in those final moments, he could resist, but Doe knows how weak humans are. None of the final horrors would be possible unless Doe arranged the circumstances to push Mills over the edge, yet the detective still could stop at any moment. Doe’s philosophy centered around punishment for sin implies we choose to commit these acts while the detectives see them as a natural outcome of human existence. Strangely, Doe’s path gives us a way out, just don’t sin.
Seven is a piece of urban horror that really embraces its broken city as a critical element in the story. This is a place where hope comes to die, where retiring detectives attempt an escape but find themselves pulled back under, destined to live here until the day they die. Apathy is the prevailing emotion of the supposed defenders of justice, but how can men so resigned to feeling nothing ever have a chance of making life better? The greatest sin, implied by Doe as he sits in the back of the cop car and seen in our protagonists’ actions, is apathy.
Going all the way back to the very first scene of the film, Somerset examines the home of a murder-suicide, a husband and wife whose argument became all too real and crossed a line. He comes across a child’s drawing on the fridge and asks another detective if the kid saw. The unnamed detective remarks at how annoying it is that Somerset asks that question and what does that matter. Despite Somerset’s protestations that he believes the darkness around him is inevitable, his question about the victims we never see reveals in some way he still thinks he can do something good in this world, he still considers those whom others have forgotten.