not in our stars, but in ourselves
32/52: A movie you started but never finished
A caveat: if you have not seen Se7en, and you don’t know what happens, you really ought to back slowly out of this post right now. There will be spoilers. The movie is twenty years old, but hey, some people successfully remain hidden under their little rocks. Stay there if you don’t want to miss out on the full effect when you see it for the first time.
I’d seen parts of Se7en. I’d seen some of the murders, and I’d seen the ending, and it was all too disturbing for me to sit through. When I watch a horror movie, I can’t help thinking about what it would feel like to be sliced and diced – and Se7en very deliberately paints each detail of each murder, so that the more empathetic audience members can only sit there writhing in imagined pain. Nevertheless, that’s why this is a movie “challenge,” so I figured I’d suck it up and dive back in.
It’s about two cops – about-to-retire Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and young gun Mills (Brad Pitt) – investigating what turns out to be a series of murders inspired by the seven deadly sins. First, they find the victim of the sin of Gluttony: an obese man who was force-fed until his stomach burst. Then Greed: a defense attorney who was made to cut off a pound of his own flesh, and left to bleed out. Then Sloth: a drug-dealer and child molester who’d been kept just barely alive, covered in sores, for a year. Then Lust: a john was strapped into a leather contraption with a knife-phallus, and forced at gunpoint to rape/murder a prostitute. Then Pride: a model was severely disfigured, left with a phone glued to one hand (to call for help, and live with a ruined face) and a bottle of sleeping pills glued to the other (so she could choose suicide, if a disfigured life was too much for her to bear). Somerset, a scholar and a cynic, tries to follow the train of thought that must have led their serial killer to such specific acts of contrapasso. Mills, who’s just moved to the city with his pretty young wife, Tracey (Gwyneth Paltrow), assumes they’re dealing with someone who’s completely insane – and therefore capable of being caught. They manage to track down the killer through his library records (a piece of the puzzle that dates the film, but in a charming way): someone named John Doe has been checking out lots of books about murder, police procedure, sin, and religion. He eludes them, however, until he walks into police headquarters and surrenders – on the strict condition that Somerset and Mills bring him to a remote location, where he says the final two victims of Wrath and Envy will be located. There is not a happy ending.
Watching it all the way through, I was again disturbed by the nature of each crime. Not unlike Will Graham, I find myself thinking about the mechanics of murdering someone so brutally: the pleas from the victim, the absence of any human remorse in the killer’s soul, the sheer force of will it would take to hold down each sobbing, pleading person until they’d finally died the way the killer wished. Each murder in Se7en necessitates an extraordinary degree of intimacy, complete control, and of course unbridled psychopathy. It makes me feel like I’m filled with toxic sludge when I see things like that; hence my frequent avoidance of movies involving body horror. Crimes like these, while perhaps less elaborate, do happen in reality. There are real people with this kind of cold hatred animating their every action. However, in soldiering through the entire movie, I found that it all melded together to produce one of the bleakest, most tragic endings in any movie I’ve seen from the past twenty years. In short: it works.
In a movie about a serial killer who’s motivated by what he’d call divine justice, set in a city that’s dirty and crowded and brimming with sinners, it wouldn’t be unfair to ask where God is in all of this. How can an omniscient, omnipotent God permit the world to fall into such a state of disrepair? How can an omniscient, omnipotent God allow a remorseless psychopath to carry out seven murders in His name? How can an omniscient, omnipotent God – one who’s allegedly loving – let people suffer so much in life before going onto damnation (one assumes – unless John Doe’s brutal contrapasso is meant to cleanse them of their sin before they go to whichever afterlife)? David Fincher doesn’t really care, it seems. The answer to these questions is simply that evil is far more powerful than good, with or without God, and we’re all powerless against it. It’s a dark worldview, but it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched.
As effective as the movie is, as well as it orchestrates each murder so that they lead unswervingly to the tragic ending, I am not without quibbles and concerns. You can count on me for killjoy feminism, you know? Of the murder victims, the men who were killed were all guilty of their respective sins. They didn’t deserve to die for them, and certainly not in the gruesome ways they were forced to, but they were indeed gluttonous, greedy, slothful (in more of the old-school Christian sense – more about that in a moment), and envious. The women who were killed, however, were either collateral damage (the victims of Lust and Envy – because the intended recipient of the punishment was actually a man); or, in the case of Pride, a woman whose crime was simply getting a little bit ahead in the world by letting people look at her pretty face.
With regards to Lust, of course John Doe intended to have the prostitute killed. He considered her a dirty, disease-spreading sinner. Really, she’s just a nameless woman, just a female body to brutalize – as if she didn’t have to endure enough of that in her life. By comparison, we get a suitably disturbing few minutes with the john who was forced to kill her. We see his trauma, his grief, his PTSD as it takes root. We see his horrified reaction to the punishment he was given for his lust. The woman, however, is just a lump under a sheet in the background of the crime scene. Do I want to see her murder? Absolutely not. Do I think it’s odd that the man’s punishment is given more dramatic heft than her death? You bet. As for Envy – and here comes that big spoiler – Tracey is the closest thing to an innocent in the entire movie. She loves her husband, and tries hard to be an understanding and supportive little wife – even though she’s unhappy in her new home. It’s implied that John Doe tries to rape her, or even succeeds (he “played husband” without success, he tells Mills). In order to prod Mills into enacting Wrath – by killing John Doe – Doe decapitates Tracey, and then realizes that he’s guilty of Envy for having wanted Tracey so much. John Doe gets a nice, quick death. Mills gets necrosis of the soul. Tracey suffers intense physical and psychological pain just before her death – all for the sin of being a sweet woman with the bad luck of being married to a cop. I don’t think I’m the first one to question whether Fincher has a problem with women, for all his recent films with “strong” female characters.
Back to the old-school Christian senses of each sin: in Medieval Christianity, the source from which John Doe seems to derive most of his inspiration, Pride was considered the greatest of all deadly sins. Pride led Lucifer to challenge God, and fall from Heaven. Pride was the sin that allowed all other deadly sins to flourish. And yet, the victim of John Doe’s Pride murder is a woman who could perhaps be labeled as “vain” – but vanity isn’t the same thing as pride. An offshoot of it, sure, but not the same thing. Someone like Donald Trump is Pride writ large: all ego, all self-importance, all delusions of grandeur. A woman who profits from her conventional attractiveness is nowhere near Lucifer levels of offensiveness.
The female deaths really stuck in my craw. I know I’m no fun. I know I’m missing the greater point by focusing on those. Would it have been so difficult, in a movie about a serial killer with whom no one will sympathize, to clarify that misogyny itself is one of his many sins? I know that’s not a very Judeo-Christian way to view the nature of sin, but it might have helped.