This isn’t one of my usual horror movie/book reviews, as the 1995 movie “Seven” was by no stretch of the imagination underrated. It was an excellent, horrifying film, and it justly received much attention and acclaim. But, I recently watched it again, as it was a birthday present, and I was struck by a few things that I’d like to discuss.
(SPOILERS AHEAD) To give a bare bones synopsis, “Seven” chiefly involves William Somerset (played by Morgan Freeman), a detective who’s planning on retiring in a week, and David Mills (Brad Pitt), a young detective who has recently transferred to the (unnamed) city at his request. We also meet Mill’s pretty wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), who’s unhappy with the move to the city, and is also newly pregnant. A series of murders occurs, and a pattern emerges—the killer is dispatching people guilty of the seven deadly sins. Unexpectedly, the murderer, John Doe (Kevin Spacey), abruptly surrenders after five slayings. As per his demands, Mills and
Somerset accompany Doe to
an isolated location, where the final two murders are revealed. Doe has killed Tracy, and mailed her severed head in a box
to the location. Mills, with Doe’s
urging, wreaks revenge on Doe and shoots him dead.
I’ve noticed this before, but I thought more about it during this particular viewing—John Doe does rather a sloppy job achieving his life’s work. (By the way, don’t take this as criticism of the movie or the screenwriter—as I said, I loved the movie, and I realize these “errors” were surely due to story telling or cinematic reasons. This is just a horror geek picking at minutia in something he’s enjoyed, and watched somewhat obsessively.) I realize he’s a religious zealot and insane, so it’s probably a mistake to use logic, but still. To review, here are details on the seven murders.
1) Unnamed obese man. Doe punishes this man for his sin of gluttony by forcing him to eat until his stomach explodes.
2) Eli Gould, prominent defense attorney. John punishes Gould for his greed by forcing him to cut a pound of his flesh off himself, resulting in Gould bleeding to death.
3) Theodore Allen, alias “Victor.” Sloth—Victor is tied to a bed for a year, fed intravenously, and given the minimum of medical care to keep him (barely) alive.
4) Unnamed prostitute. Lust—an unnamed massage parlor customer is forced at gunpoint to have sex with the woman using a bladed pseudo dildo, which kills her.
5) Unnamed woman. John cuts up the face of a pretty woman, then bandages the wounds, so she can survive. He then glues a phone in one hand, and a bottle of sleeping pills in the other. The prideful woman chooses to kill herself rather than live with her looks disfigured.
6) Tracy Mills. John visits the Mills home and “tries to play house,” as he’s envious of David’s simple, but happy life. It fails, of course, so Doe kills
Tracy and arranges for
her head to be mailed.
7) John Doe. Upon learning that Doe killed his wife (and unborn child), Mills succumbs to his wrath and shoots John dead.
First off, John Doe is unusual for a movie killer in that he doesn’t directly kill most of his victims. Not to absolve him—clearly he’s still responsible, but I wonder if the distinction is meaningful to him, by giving his victims, to varying degrees, a choice. Technically he only personally kills
Tracy. Also, and here was a unique(?) plot twist in
a horror/thriller—the crazed killer turns himself in to the police.
Anyway, Victims 1, 2, and 5 actually make sense—in each case the person is “guilty” of the ascribed sin, and is forced into a scenario that uses the sin ironically in their death. 2’s method is a bit symbolic, (a pound of flesh for greed), but it seems to fit reasonably in the ideals Doe holds. And in murders 2 and 5 both victims have a degree of control in the matter—Gould could have possibly survived if he’d been a better home surgeon, and the prideful woman could have easily lived (albeit at a huge cosmetic cost)
The others, though, are fairly problematic. Take Victim 3, Victor (who incidentally isn’t seen to die—he’s horrifically weak, insane, and presumably at death’s door, but still technically alive). We’re told that after a strict religious upbringing he embarked on a life of crime, including drug dealing, armed robberies, assaults, and an attempted rape of a minor. Serious sins, no doubt (the worst of all the victims, save Doe), but how do they fit sloth? Even if the definition of sloth is widened to include indifference, or unwillingness to act and care, it doesn’t really work. If Victor was truly slothful, his victims probably wouldn’t have been attacked. Victor’s sins were clearly better defined as lust (the rape), greed (making money illegally) or wrath (assaulting people, robbing them with weapons). He was only “lazy” or “indifferent” or “slothful” when Doe forced him to be so.
Victim 4 isn’t “fair,” either. While peoples’ reasons for becoming a prostitute vary, I’m guessing in the vast majority of cases they don’t do so for lustful reasons. If they were, why charge money? Just have sex with anyone you can, like a typical sex addict. You could make a much better case that the customer exhibited lust, not the doomed prostitute. True, the reluctant killer in this case is clearly severely traumatized, but he’s not killed or even physically harmed. Here John Doe seems like a stereotypical sexist guy—blaming the hooker for the sin of “improper” sex while ignoring the customer. With no demand for this business service, there isn’t supply, after all.
It just gets less accurate from here. Envy and wrath are accounted for, but in convoluted, “incorrect” ways. Doe is guilty of envy, and is killed for it. But everything else is “off.” David Mills is also clearly traumatized (perhaps permanently?), but he’s physically alive and well. He didn’t pay the ultimate price for his “sin” of wrath. But the huge problem is this—why did
get killed? She doesn’t exhibit or
demonstrate any of the deadly sins. Even
John Doe himself, Mr. Intolerant and Critical, doesn’t note any. He murdered her, in cold blood, because he
was envious of David and couldn’t have her.
Kind of like the fourth murder, Doe confused the victim/victimizer
ratio, and essentially blamed Tracy
for the “sin” of being desirable.
I know, I know, it’s just a movie. But hey, sometimes I have an abundance of free time. And to reiterate, I’m not criticizing the story—it worked very well, and I thoroughly and repeatedly enjoyed the film. I’m just noting the inconsistencies of the messed up, psychotic character within the film.
Another thing I’ve noticed in later viewings is the cast. Two of the supporting actors I now associate with later sitcom roles. For example, the small role of Dr. O’Neill (his biggest moment is at the pride murder scene) is played by Peter Crombie. But to fans of the great sitcom “Seinfeld,” he’ll forever be recognized as “Crazy” Joe Davola, the acquaintance of Jerry’s who believes that Jerry ruined his television show chances, and who subsequently threatens Jerry (once while dressed up as a clown). And then there’s
California, the head of the SWAT team in the
movie. He’s played by John C.
McGinley. McGinley has had a long movie
and TV career, including roles in “Platoon,” “Office Space,” and “Identity,”
but to me he’ll always be most associated with the “Dr. Cox” character he
played on the sitcom, “Scrubs.” He even
gives his trademark Dr. Cox whistle at one point—I almost expected him to call
a sensitive male character by a girl’s name, as he did many times to the “Dr.
Dorian” character on the show.
Two other supporting characters caught my eye as well. Richard Roundtree also has had a long career, but he’s easily best known for playing “John Shaft” in the “Shaft” movies. How ironic to see that in the movie “Seven” he’s working as The Man (he’s the district attorney). Finally, the guy who plays the massage parlor booth attendant, Michael Massee, is associated with a real life, tragic death. Massee was the person who actually shot Brandon Lee for a scene in “The Crow,” that resulted in Lee’s death. This wasn’t Massee’s fault at all (the special effects crew handled the blanks in the prop gun in a negligent, irresponsible manner), but still, it’s clearly traumatized him, and it adds a bizarre layer to “Seven.”
A few other cameo tidbits—Charles Dutton (“Roc,” “Alien 3”, "Rudy") has a tiny role in the film—he’s the cop who keeps the press at bay during the greed crime scene. (Dutton also served time in real life for manslaughter.) Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker is the corpse of gluttony. And Morgan Freeman’s son Alfonse plays a fingerprint technician. And finally—evidently R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe was considered for the role of John Doe.
Also, I was interested to learn that an alternate ending (planned, but not filmed) of “Seven” had
shooting Doe before Mills could. On
this, then, Somerset
realized that his career and life were nearly over (or much more than Mill’s,
anyway) and so his punishment would be less damaging. Additionally, it wouldn’t be what John Doe
had set up and wanted, so in that way it would “beat” him.
In closing, in case you were wondering, there are holy, opposite equivalents to the seven deadly sins—the seven virtues. These are chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility. Maybe there’ll be a sequel to “Seven” where a Satanic character kills people who exhibit these virtues, in ironic ways. I wish I could say that this is an unrealistic joke, but given
propensity to remake/sequel-ize any movie of note (especially horror/thrillers)
that’s probably a possibility.