Opinion: SE7EN’s John Doe Didn’t Succeed as He Planned
David Fincher’s 1995 psychological horror/thriller Se7en is one of most enduring and terrifying films of its kind, standing alongside the likes of The Silence of the Lambs, Zodiac, Frailty, and The Vanishing, amongst others. The tale of two detectives, one new to the force and one on the way out, searching for a serial killer whose victims are chosen according to the seven deadly sins, Se7en was lauded upon release and was wildly commercially successful.
While the gritty, grimy, darkness that pervades throughout the film hovers like a miasma of evil, it’s the ending that has cemented the film in cinema history. I urge those who have not seen the film to avoid reading any further because this piece will delve deep into spoiler territory, ruining a great deal of what makes this film so special.
“When retiring police Detective William Somerset tackles a final case with the aid of newly transferred David Mills, they discover a number of elaborate and grizzly murders. They soon realize they are dealing with a serial killer who is targeting people he thinks represent one of the seven deadly sins. Somerset also befriends Mills’ wife, Tracy, who is pregnant and afraid to raise her child in the crime-riddled city.”
To put the ending of the film into perspective, we need to recognize several important factors throughout the movie itself. John Doe (Kevin Spacey) is choosing his victims based upon his interpretation of the seven deadly sins. For example, a disfigured model represents Pride while a man who has sex with prostitutes is Lust, although he is arguably not a victim. In his own twisted way, Doe sees himself as a purifier of the land. As he puts it, “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.”
Doe, a psychopath, shows no remorse for his actions and his only displays of emotion are in direct relation to how it affects his own status. He calmly turns himself in, covered in blood, only screaming when he realizes that he is not being heard. His voice quivers when he is presented with the suggestion that his victims were innocent. He smugly chortles when he learns that Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) wasn’t aware of Tracy’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) pregnancy. He has a complete lack of empathy for what others are feeling, projecting only his own thoughts on what they should feel rather than what they do feel. It’s this inability on his part that is his ultimate undoing, even if he gets what he wants.
Moving to Detective Mills, we see a very specific character built throughout the movie, one that is headstrong, cocky, desperate to make a name for himself, and overflowing with rage. He’s unable to have even a simple conversation without resorting to anger-infused cursing, like when he tells Somerset (Morgan Freeman) the story of how he and Tracy got their apartment only to learn that the realtor sneakily brought them during times to avoid the earthquake-like impact of a nearby train. While Somerset and Tracy laugh at the surreal absurdity of the situation, Mills tries to end their jocularity.
While the film spares no expense in building Mills’ frustrations, anger, and irritations, it is the small moments where he lets those emotions go that we see a more nuanced and uplifting character. When he brings over Somerset for the first time, one of his primary concerns is asking Tracy “How are the kids?”, after which he goes into a room dedicated to his dogs where we see him fall to the floor to embrace them on his own level. Later in the film, when Mills and Somerset go out for drinks, the former disagrees with the latter on how the general population embraces apathy, revealing his idealism and hope. He may be the central force of anger in the film but his anger comes from a place of wanting everything to be better, possibly a mirror of Doe’s own mission, although that’s a topic for someone else to tackle.
With these factors in mind, I believe that the now famous “What’s in the box?!” final scene of Se7en should be viewed in a different light. When Doe reveals that he is guilty of the deadly sin of Envy, he urges Mills to “Become vengeance, David. Become…Wrath.” This is because it is revealed that Doe murdered Mills’ wife Tracy and mutilated her remains, all while knowing of her pregnancy. However, what he fails to recognize is that Mills isn’t overcome by wrath in this moment but rather is stricken by unbearable grief, an emotion Doe completely overlooked because he is unable to know what it feels like or what causes it. In his mind, the death of a loved one can only result in anger, which is where his own flaw ruins his plan. While the outcome was exactly what Doe wanted, it didn’t happen for the reason he so meticulously planned for.
In talking about grief, Australia’s HealthDirect.gov.au recognizes that people are likely to experience, “…initial shock and disbelief as well as a range of feelings, including numbness, a sense of unreality, anger, loneliness or guilt.” Numbness certainly hits Mills before the gunshots stop echoing across the desert while unreality sets in the moment he recognizes what may be at stake. While anger certainly plays a part in his actions, Mills’ loneliness comes from being literally alone as a widower while also knowing that his partner, albeit one he joined forces with only a few days prior, will no longer be there for him. As for guilt, Somerset’s heartbroken claim “You made her a suspect” was all it took for Mills to feel the weight of everything crashing down around him.
While he may have gotten the punishment of which he deemed himself worthy, Mills was not the agent of Wrath that John Doe had hoped to create. He was simply a grief-struck man who lost his wife and unborn child and acted out of pain. That’s what makes the ending so tragic and painful, not to mention all the scarier. Mills was the voice of hope, idealism, and optimism and Doe destroyed that entirely in a way he never planned…or could have even imagined.