Having watched Seven many times over the years, I was ecstatic to find it on the syllabus as a required text. This is a film that has haunted and inspired me for a long time. It is likely the reason that the exploration of religious themes have crept into my own work so often. And, of course, it forces us to acknowledge that we can in some way sympathize with a serial killer given the right circumstances.
John Doe, brilliantly portrayed by Kevin Spacey, is a man on a mission. In a world that has forgotten the meaning of “sin” (and as an atheist I hate that term, but I will use it in the context of the film), he intends to jolt an indifferent populace out of their apathy by becoming an Old Testament-style instrument of God’s vengeance. He does not consider himself special, however; he knows that even he is not without sin and must be sacrificed for the greater good of his message. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the second definition of “martyr” is “a person who sacrifices something of great value and especially life itself for the sake of principle.” This is where Seven makes most people uncomfortable, because John Doe is, by this definition, indeed a martyr.
It is difficult to wrap one’s mind around the concept, and a testament to the genius of Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay. But it doesn’t take a mission-oriented serial killer to see that the moral compass of this world, and our country in particular, has malfunctioned. John Doe has certainly crossed a line with his “principles,” and let’s face it–a few murders probably won’t have much of an effect on a society up to its eyeballs in violent crime. Not to mention that John admittedly takes pleasure in lengthy sequences of torture (a year for poor Victor!) leading up to the actual murder. Do I find these aspects of his character sympathetic? Of course not; he is delusional and sadistic. What I can relate to, however, is the motivation that led him to such extreme acts–the idea that, as he expressed to the detectives, “Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention.” In this day and age, anything and everything has to be more and more extreme just to attract the slightest amount of attention. The sins for which John Doe punishes his victims, sins once feared as a ticket straight to Hell, are now not only “common” and “trivial,” in some cases they’re even celebrated. Investment bankers, supermodels, porn stars–are these the people we want to emulate? How can things like Greed and Lust possibly provide a stable foundation for a society? They can’t, of course, and this is John Doe’s point. Society is crumbling around us while we continue to bury our heads in the sand, while we retreat into apathy as the solution, just as Detective Somerset acknowledges.
Pride was considered the worst of the Seven Deadly Sins, but in Seven Wrath is the most terrible sin of all, as it both punishes Envy and breaks the man wielding its power. Wrath is the crowning achievement of John Doe’s “work.” What appears on the surface to be suicide-by-cop is John’s bid for martyrdom; in confessing his sin of Envy, he accepts that he too must die in order for the message to be complete. But it is not enough merely to confess. It is not extreme enough to provoke Detective Mills into action. Only the murder and decapitation of Mills’ pregnant wife will suffice, and while we as the audience (at least those viewing it for the first time) hope that Mills can find the strength to resist, he is only human. Mills becomes Wrath, just as John Doe envisioned and urged him to, and empties his gun into him. Envy has been punished, and Wrath, embodied by the now-catatonic Mills, faces a lifetime of torment. Having dismissed John Doe as “crazy,” having not seen the bigger picture as Somerset did until it was too late, Mills helps create the very thing he tried to stop. He has made John Doe a martyr.
Seven is easily my favorite film in the serial-killer genre. It is a film that goes to very dark places, forcing an examination of our society and the ugliness inside each of us. Most troubling, it presents us with a serial killer who has legitimate problems with the world. Problems that all of us, whether we like to admit it or not, wouldn’t mind seeing eliminated in one way or another.