An Analysis – Se7en – The Sins of John Doe

In September 1995, another serial killer film was released. Two cops, one about to retire, the other new to the big city—sounds about as cliché as they come. The killer has a theme that he follows. The dark and spooky trailer has lines such as “this is not going to have a happy ending.” The director had one previous film under his belt, which was the third (and least favorite) of a film franchise. It didn’t really add up to much on paper. But onscreen, it was an understated masterpiece.

The power and artistry of Seven begins and ends with the villain. As Hitchcock said, “The greater the evil, the greater the film.” John Doe, an enigmatic figure if there ever was one, is killing one victim for each deadly sin. The first sense we get of the viciousness of our killer is the method of death in the first victim. “An obese man forced to eat until his stomach explodes” is how one of the characters describes it. As an audience, after we hear this, we know we’re in for something really twisted. The second victim bleeds to death after cutting a pound of flesh out of his own body. Before we get a chance to fall into some predictable pattern, a third victim is discovered, but he is still alive. He’s essentially brain-dead, but still alive.

In the first three crimes, the devotion, madness and message of John Doe start to appear. We begin to understand him, but even worse, we begin to feel for him. Everyone has been disgusted at one point or another when a shady defense lawyer is able to get a murderer cleared of charges. When a morbidly obese person sits down next to us in a public place, we wonder how they let themselves get that way. We’re disgusted by these people. John Doe is disgusted as well, but he’s doing something about it. He’s taking the disgust and elevating it to the level of the Old Testament. We say to ourselves, we would never do that. Right?

John Doe’s intelligence and passion in his master plan may be what makes him evil, but what makes him a great villain is his care and meticulousness. He cuts his fingertips off so that he won’t leave fingerprints. How twisted is it to inflict that pain on yourself instead of wearing gloves? He visits one of his victims every day, caring for his bedsores just enough to keep them from getting infected and killing him. His patience is staggering.

Another thing that adds to his mystery and the power of his villainy is that we never see him kill anyone. The first time we see John Doe (aside from glimpses in a chase scene) is when he walks into the police station to surrender. From that point on, he’s in handcuffs, not a threat. By not seeing him kill any of his victims, we individually construct mental images of him killing his victims and these images are the absolute worst things we can visualize.

Finally, a happy accident adds to the believability of Kevin Spacey playing John Doe. Kevin Spacey was not in the opening credits, and the producers asked reviewers not to reveal who played the killer. So, for many movie-goers, the appearance of Kevin Spacey was shocking and extremely effective. Effective because a scant five weeks before Seven was released, a low-budget film about criminals called The Usual Suspects hit the big screen. That film had one of the cinema’s greatest villains ever in Keyser Soze, played by Kevin Spacey, who would go on to win the Oscar a few months later for his portrayal of Soze. So when Seven came out, everyone was easily sold that this plain-looking actor could be the epitome of evil.

There’s much more to the film Seven than the villain, though. The casting is perfect. Brad Pitt as a cop who gets frustrated when he has to think, Morgan Freeman as the reserved cop who bottles everything up inside, Gwyneth Paltrow as the wife who just wants to be anywhere else. Even the minor actors take their craft to the next level. Leland Orser, the man who was forced to kill the hooker, didn’t sleep for three days before his scene and right before shooting, he began to hyperventilate. Michael Reid MacKey, the sloth victim, weighed 96 pounds when he auditioned for the role. Fincher jokingly asked him to lose 6 pounds. He did and he did this for a part in which he doesn’t even have a line. Both roles are small, but neither character escapes easily from the memory.

Finally, it’s time to discuss David Fincher and his vision. I won’t discuss the obvious things, such as the tone he set, the pacing throughout the film or the music. I’m just going to mention some interesting choices that he made. First, the rain. It comes down constantly, which adds to the dreary atmosphere. But it comes down in such a desperate hope, as if to imply that enough rain could wash all our sins away. It finally stops raining when John Doe steps out of the cab to surrender. From that point on, there is no rain. Even nature has conceded defeat. Another interesting choice is the library. How many guards are there? Five, six? We don’t see that many guards anywhere else in the entire film. The library is also the only peaceful, violence-free location in the entire film. Yes, Somerset browses through some violent drawings in books, but those are pictures, they are disconnected from the film. Violence is everywhere else. The crime scenes, the police station where they discuss the crimes scenes. In Somerset’s apartment, he’s throwing his knife into the dartboard, while Mills’s apartment shakes violently because of the passing train. Even in the diner, Somerset and Tracy discuss abortion, which could be argued is a violent action.

In the end, though, the impact of the film comes from the villain being successful with his dark plan. But we’re okay with that, because John Doe knows he is not above any of the sinners that he has punished, therefore he must be punished as well. Justice is served. The message is delivered. Not since 1939, when Ten Little Indians was first published, has a villain succeeded in such a satisfying manner. There are more parallels between that book and this movie. I’d suggest you read and watch each to see how masterfully constructed both are.


Kevin Barney is a writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to being a cinephile, he is an avid runner, has a dog named Potato and can usually be found daydreaming about almost anything.

You can reach Kevin via email, he hasn't gotten into twitter yet.

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