Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Gentleness of Se7en

Throughout my tenure as an individual who watches films for gems of meaning, I have turned my gaze to the fertile soil that is the masterpiece Se7en many times.  I imagine if I continue to both live and write in the world for any fair duration of time, I will repeat this exercise many times over.

The film plays on these basic premises:
          1) The world is broken.
          2) People retain the capability to love and to be lovable.

The formula is quite simple, but its effects can be devastatingly real to our own lives.

I have a bad habit.  It's quite moronic, really, but nevertheless, it keeps pushing itself to the surface.

Wherever I'm living, I have this awful tendency to allow one small area of my dormitory to slowly devolve into an utter mess.  Sometimes its a very small area -- a corner of the room, the closest... -- and at times it can be a big problem -- like when I caused my bird to die because I inextricably suddenly refused to clean his cage, and simply let the pour creature wallow in its filth until death (I was 12, so don't assassinate my character for this one, please).  When I do finally undertake the job of cleaning the abominable mess I have long procrastinated at cleansing my residency of, it is often too late to undo the damage I've caused (like the death of my bird).  This past winter, some water spilled underneath my bed, and I forgot for awhile about it, until a faint smell from time to time would waft under my nose.  My solution was to keep the window in my bedroom open all the time.  Two months later, when I found myself determined to eradicate the source of the stench, I discovered a small, but vitriol fungus had been thriving in the darkness, and it had already climbed up into my mattress.  The damage was contained to a small location, but it was uneradicatable.

Se7en takes place in a world where the junk was left uncleansed for too long.  The damage has been done.  Humpty-Dumpty won't be fixed.

And yet, people still dwell in this place.  Lovely people.  Detective William Somerset is a somber, quiet, intellectual, cautious, caring, orderly, nurturing man.  His replacement on the Force, Detective Mills, is easy to engage with because of his rambunctious vitality.  He's the new kid on the block and we love the enthusiasm he brings to the game.  And then there's his wife, the lovely blonde, Tracy.  She is soft on the eyes and equally soft on the heart.  She never raises her voice, and immediately sees the goodness in the aging Somerset that we've known from the start.  These three people are worth knowing, are worth loving, and yet, here they are in this barren world.

Their endgame will not be pleasant.  Tracy will have her head cut off.  Her husband will be driven by madness, rage, and wrath --- the perversions of the innocent, rambunctious vitality that we appreciate in his character.  And Detective Somerset, who from the getgo of the film was seeking a way out of the city, seeking a place to find some rest, comes to a somber, inevitable conclusion.  There is no escape.

These things I have known about the film for some good measure of time now.  The novel idea that sprung to my mind was that maybe John Doe, our vicious serial-killer puppeteer extraordinaire, may himself be lovely.  Perhaps his character is not made of pure evil.

This thought floated upon me as the the three men (the detectives and their prisoner) travel by car to their allotted final destination.  Mr. John Doe had for most of the car ride kept his voice miraculously monotone.  Despite Mills' coaxing, John was actively restrained in manner, and even appeared to be emanating peace from his orange jumpsuit.  But the veil was lifted when Mills dared to speak of the innocence of John Doe's victims.

Doe can't handle the blasphemy.  He leans in towards the detectives and his voice gradually crescendos as he lists the vile attributes of those he caused to suffer.  He concludes with the line:

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.

Doe had come to the conclusion that it was time to clean the fungus that was eating at the mattress.  He would fix that which was broken.  Maybe you don't want to believe in Doe's conviction, but realize he dies for his cause willingly.  He himself is full of the stuff of brokenness, and so at least he finds a way to eliminate himself.

This is not a story of two diametrically opposed forces.  This is not good versus evil.  There is no joker, here, toiling about evil for the hell of it.  This is a car of three men, each of which must come to the same conclusion -- it's all gone wrong.  We can abhor John Doe's actions, and we can pity Mills' inevitable vengeful retaliation, but we still must look inward to find our own answer to their dilemma.  What do we do with a world that is broken bit by bit? 

If the world is worth fighting for, maybe John Doe was just fighting with the wrong weapons.

I think maybe Se7en's gentleness is expressed in its concluding sigh.


  1. Looking back, this (besides the title choice which puzzles me a bit) was thoughtfully written and deserved a comment. For the sake of debate, I will respectfully disagree with your point that this story is not good vs. evil.

    What motivates Doe's actions? Is it love, compassion, righteous anger even? No. Pride motivates him. And I would venture to say pride, while one of the most basic and intrinsic sins to man, is a master of disguise. Doe's actions are not some misguided attempt to fight for the good in the world. Far from it. They are the manifestations of Doe's ego in the casing of a maryter. Doe is no vigilante saint, he is simply a masterpiece of the depravity and chaos that Somerset struggles so valiantly against.

  2. Well spoken.

    Let's look at the idea of children for a moment. The scene that elevates the movie far above others of its genre is the diner scene between Somerset and Tracy. The conclusion Somerset lauds is that she have a secret abortion. He argues that it is a morally better thing to not bring a life into this sick world.

    So, are we given any children in the film? Yes and no.

    No actual kids are ever seen, but the Mills family calls their two dogs 'the kids'. And sure enough, after a long day, Mills comes home to play with them. It's a happy moment for the family.

    From the beginning of the film, Somerset is set on getting out of the city. Maybe the country will be better.

    Well, the climactic scene takes us out of the city into the desert. The first thing we find there is a dead kid (dog).

    This is why Somerset says at the end, "I'll be around."

    Depravity has soaked in everywhere.

    There is no good in this world, because there's no right example to follow.

  3. So then what is the meaning behind the finishing lines of the film? How can you fight for a world fully saturated with evil? A losing battle it may be, but a battle it is none the less.

  4. If John Doe's actions were done for only the sake of Det. Somerset, was he affective? I say yes. Through the seven days Somerset comes to know that he can't escape the vileness of the world. His perspective has changed (the metronome is no longer soothing). So yes, I agree with you that the call for Somerset in the end is to fight -- but the battle isn't against the John Doe's of the world (at least, not directly).

    And whereas I'd agree with you that Doe was devastated by his own pride, I would argue that Doe was a culprit of all of the seven sins. His redemption, in his view, comes from his being fully aware of his sin. He's very Socratic in this fashion -- he considers himself the greatest of people for he alone knows the extent of his own (as well as the world's) sin.

    To identify Doe as the incarnation of evil is to minimize the pervasiveness of the earth's perversion.

  5. "To identify Doe as the incarnation of evil is to minimize the pervasiveness of the earth's perversion."

    I believe I am missing your perspective here. Let me phrase this a different way.

    Your initial point was that Se7en is not a movie about Good vs Evil but instead three men all arriving at the same conclusion (the depravity of the world). I venture that these are not mutually exclusive ideals.

    I think the movie can be about both Good vs Evil and still allowing three men to come to the same conclusion. Leaving Mills out of the equation, you are left with two contrasting forces. Summerset spends an entire career fighting against the depravity or for Good. Even at the end of the film, while he can't say the world is a good place, he still knows that there is something worth fighting for. He couldn't say this in a FULLY saturated world of depravity. If no good exists then there would be nothing to fight for. So some good MUST exist to provide for the most literal translation of the closing quote of the film.

    Doe on the other hand takes the quintessential aspect of evil, convincing others that you are good. Doe is not catering to the uneducated masses. He is deliberately appealing to the educated. As I stated before, he is motivated by pride. This is not some misguided attempt to make the world a better place by turning the spotlight to man's sin. While he may try to convince the other side that he is a martyr dying for his cause, he is not. He is looking for a place in the anneals of history. In 2 Corinthians 11 Paul states...

    And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. 14And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.

    This is exactly what i believe is happening here. Doe is the incarnation of the evil of the world, I don't see how that minimizes the worlds perversion at all. If anything, it is a testimonial to it...

  6. Bravo. Astute analysis. Way to bust down the door with the Good Word, too! Bonus points!

    One point of confusion: Does Doe (that's weird does doe) believe that goodness exists?

    Also, will you come to Koper so we can watch the film and discuss it point by point? There's still so much in it that I'd like to pursue in thought.


  7. You give me to much credit Dante.

    As far as Doe's knowledge of the good of the world? I don't know. It seems you could make a few different arguments. From my opinion it could really go either way. Neither would disrupt the good vs evil motif.

    On the one hand we could say he knows, but he wishes to convince everyone that this is not the case. This would make him to be, in his mind, the best of the best. Because if he could convince even the good people that goodness was an illusion, his enlightened state would be the highest and best position possible. For my position outlined in the previous posts, this option makes more sense.

    On the other hand he may not know of any good. This would make him out to be a true victim of the depravity in the world. If he doesn't know of the good, then he couldn't view his actions as sacrificial in any way because in his mind there would be no good to sacrifice for. If Doe didn't know it would detract from the genius of his plot I think. If he doesn't know, I believe it would strengthen your point that this is not Good vs Evil when referencing the relationship between the two characters.

  8. Reading over that last post, the end of the first paragraph seems to contradict the end of the third. To be clear, the good vs. evil motif can still exist outside of Doe. It is either Somerset vs Doe(evil) or just Somerset(Good) vs. Evil as a whole. If Doe doesn't know he just seems more of a victim to me than an adversary.