The Lord Works In Mysterious Ways

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.

Published by Jennifer Loring

Jennifer Loring’s short fiction has appeared in the anthologies Tales from the Lake vols. 1 and 4, Nightscript IV, Dim Shores Presents Volume 2, and the Bram Stoker Award-nominated Not All Monsters and Arterial Bloom, among many others. She holds an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction with a concentration in horror fiction and is currently working toward a PhD in Interdisciplinary Studies - Humanities & Culture, focusing on queer possibility in fairy tales. Jenn lives in Philadelphia, PA, where she and her husband are owned by a turtle and two basset hounds.

4 thoughts on “The Lord Works In Mysterious Ways

  1. Great breakdown of the dynamics between Mills and Doe at the end. This was my first time watching "Seven" and I can say that it's one of my favorite films now. You're right about it forcing us to evaluate ourselves, our inner "ugliness" (well put). Your words made me think about the apocalypse prophesies that are supposed to play out in 2012 and how it's captured so many people's attention because it just might change the world by wiping society's slate clean. Or we could all freak out and it turn out like the Y2K virus in 2000 and have to go back to our apathetic lives watching teens singing and playing guitar asking a girl to prom on Yahoo! news clips. (I've seen the headlines on Yahoo! news, but I like to think I'm not so far gone as to read/watch them.)


  2. You do a wonderful job of breaking down this movie. This was the first time I watched it, and I can't believe I missed out on seeing this one. And you're right…it does make us look at ourselves and society.


  3. What a great post, Jenn. After reading your analysis, I can see SEVEN as a kind of cautionary tale, warning us not to simply write off the John Doe's as "crazy". That's Mills's mistake, as you point out, and that mistake leads him to his fate as Does's master stroke.You also make me think that this cautionary tale offers a warning far more universal than "Don't underestimate serial killers!" The impulse to do that is probably a self-defense mechanism on our part. "He did what? Oh, he must be CRAZY!" It's a comfortable notion, an easy way to write off anyone who might be more similar to us than we'd care to admit. As you point out, SEVEN doesn't let us off the hook. By forcing us to see John Doe as more than crazy, it keeps us from pushing him completely away, wholesale, and thereby invites us to examine "our society and the ugliness inside each of us." Thanks, as always, for making me think.


  4. The very thing you point out about everything having to be more and more extreme is one of the things I struggle with in my parenting, in a different way. I've raised these little ones to take joy in small things, and my babies get excited about driving over the highway overpass because they can "see everything". They take pleasure in cruising by downtown Houston because the buildings are "huge like castles". And we used to be able to spend time at home reading books and they had the best time. But this year, they entered public school, and everything changed.Now, they talk incessantly about going to Chucky Cheese, and wanting to wear sparkly, name brand sneakers and wanting a video game system (other than the educational ones they already have). And I wonder, "Where will this all end, this influence that the outside world has on everything, with bigger and sparklier and noisier?"Though on a whole different note, it leads me to wonder, eventually, "Where does it end with the extreme nature of the crimes that are committed and how much of those crimes is shown to the general public?" I grew up in a time when a missing child was one of the worst things that could happen. Now, the media not only innundates the airwaves with images of the missing children, but if they are found dead, they all but show the body. How sparkly does sparkly need to be before it blinds everyone?


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