The early 1990's were not a great time for lovers of either the Horror/Thriller genres. Endless campy sequels involving Freddy, Jason and Michael Myers had all but ruined the concept of the malevolent killer in our midst and after poor attempts at rebooting old classics like Bram Stoker's Dracula, horror fans were desperate for something to once again leave them speechless out of fear and repulsion like the classic era of the 1970's, when The Exorcist and Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House on the Left challenged them and thrilled them in equal measure.
The Thriller genre was undergoing a bit of a renaissance by 1995, led by Quentin Tarantino's ultra-violent but ultra cool Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects but those who wanted a bit darker than Quentin and Singer's world were left wanting.
Then it happened.
Before we continue, I will point out that SERIOUS SPOILERS ARE AHEAD. Do not read on if you have not seen the movies I mention or discuss and if you do, don't complain!
I can remember sitting down in the brand new Odeon in Kettering, England for the first time around midnight on a Friday. The place had "teething troubles" and the only film still available to see, albeit late was the bizzarely titled Se7en. My girlfriend and I had no concept of what was ahead and after 2 hours we left in a state of total shock at what we'd seen. Not because it was bad, indeed it was agreed this was just about the best movie either of us had ever seen but it was also the most visceral and disturbing. I knew this would forever be a favourite of mine when the first thing I thought after waking up was "I can't BELIEVE they did that."
Over the years the girlfriends have changed but Se7en remains an important movie for me that I return to at least every couple of years. Indeed it's even a "test" for the new girls to see if they can stomach the movie, if they struggle with this film or become morally offended by it, there's a good chance it's not going to work but that's a different article.
Last chance for spoilers....
David Fincher's film has arguably the most violent "kick to the balls" ending of almost any Hollywood movie in history. It doesn't hide from the nihlism at it's heart, makes you rue not listening to Morgan Freeman's Somerset when he quite rightly says "This isn't going to have a happy ending". We spend the movie in the shoes of Brad Pitt's David Mills, and believe in him and his views rather than Somerset's bleak outlook and why shouldn't we? Despite the filth and depravity on display in the city and being perpetrated by John Doe for the sins of others; there is hope, a young couple following their path and dreams despite the odds, finding a new friend where there was seeming animosity and a new life on the way, for a few minutes you can imagine the Mills and Somerset being friends for the future, their child viewing him as a favourite uncle or grandpa type figure and Somerset getting a chance at the life he never allowed himself.
That is all wrenched away in the last 2 minutes of the movie when after handing himself in, John Doe's endgame is horrifically realized with a simple Fed Ex package...containing the head of Tracey Mills and blinded by grief, David commits his deadly sin of Wrath, murdering Doe in cold blood and seemingly allowing him to win.
On watching the film this time around, it became very apparent to me that he really did lose. John Doe did not win, his plan was ultimately unsuccessful and undone by his own arrogance, perhaps the 8th deadly sin.
Before I can explain why, we have to look back at something he says himself and that is "I've had to adjust my schedule...I just don't want to spoil the surprise."
The timings of the murders, indeed John Doe's whole MO has been leading to a certain time, the retirement of Somerset. Indeed it is clear to me now that HE, not Mills was always the intended target of Doe's "teachings" with the endgame of forcing him to be his murderer, just at the point where he was going to begin a new life. He had studied Somerset and knew that he would kill him rather than leave him alive to plunder innocent lives, and the plan is working. Somerset is clearly jaded and exhibiting some dark traits himself, carrying a switchblade and practicing throwing it, needing a metronome to sleep. Somerset is a man on the edge by the time we meet him, practically praying he gets through the week intact so he can escape. But Doe is clearly working to ensure that never happens. Remember the mugging victim with his eyes stabbed out that upsets Somerset so much? How about John Doe being responsible for that?
The wildcard then enters the fray in David Mills, young, full of piss and vinegar and willing to take risks that Somerset is capable of, but has long stopped allowing himself to in fear of where they would take him. After a very chilly start the two quickly warm to each other and once Tracey is involved an inevitable friendship begins. Ironically the turning point in all their lives is the one where Somerset begins to respect Mills for the first time, when the photographer we later know to be Doe appears at the scene of the Sloth crime and Mills runs him off. Somerset is impressed by "a man feeding off his emotions" but more telling is Doe's "I got your picture..." it now means that Mills is on Doe's radar as a threat to him.
When the two find his home just a day later, despite it being down to Somerset's black bag connection at the FBI, Doe attributes it to Mills and after the tenacious chase we come to the second pivotal moment. Where Doe doesn't kill Mills. That is the point his plan shifts and Mills becomes his target rather than Somerset and that leads to the phone call that states his admiration and that his plan has now changed.
From that moment he is following either Somerset or Mills whenever he is not working on another crime and crucially is present in the diner while Somerset and Tracey have their heart to heart. While he likely can't hear them, he now knows Tracey and quickly finds their apartment, buying the info from a cop (anyone want to bet it was the guy from the Gluttony crime with the attitude?) and allowing him to finalise his plan and make the mistakes that foiled it.
Doe completes his other crimes and then hands himself in, knowing Tracey is dead and that the "body" he is leading them to is in fact hers and his own.
He allows Mills to rile him in the car, and does deliver the only truth in his manifesto. That Mills WILL have to wake every morning knowing Doe allowed him to live but as shown just a few minutes later there is one thing Doe didn't realise that actually prevents his plan of Mills being disgraced.
While on his knees, right after the revelation of Tracey being pregnant, Doe states "He didn't know..." I've always felt this was a mocking tone but on seeing it this time it's actually an eye roll, he'd have slapped his head if he could. In that moment his plan unravels extremely quickly in two ways.
First, he realises that because Mills didn't know about his wife's condition, that it is all on tape means that Mills would now be given the insanity plea that he had earlier tried to blackmail them with. He would face no criminal charges due to the involvement of a police officer in providing the information and Mills would be pitied, not disgraced for his sin. The DA would not press charges as they'd be against "the public interest" and after a period in hospital Mills would be freed.
He also realises that Somerset could stand in front of Doe, preventing the shot but doesn't. Doe was right about Somerset, he'd have no problem allowing him to die and Mills to pull the trigger, knowing the balance of probabilities would just see his career end.
Doe also realises that because of this his crimes will not receive the notoriety he had hoped for, as the cop would not be disgraced and executed as he hoped, indeed as Mills correctly predicted in the car he'd be a "movie of the week".
All Doe has left at that point is to goad Mills into killing him, so at least he can claim a "moral victory" rather than his master plan succeeding and Mills obliges him.
The final scene is also telling, Somerset does not say he is staying as a cop, only that he's around for Mills, "however long it takes", the Captain is "We'll take care of him", he isn't going to spend one night in jail, but straight to hospital under sedation...and Somerset will be there at the end to take him to his farmhouse and help him pick up the pieces, not the retirement he had planned but ultimately his own chance at redemption with the son he never allowed to be born.
While the tragedy of Tracey's death would never leave either man, on viewing the events this way they do not seem terminally bleak. There is no Mills suicide or trial, just two guys destroyed by the depravity of one man but with Somerset's new found hope that "The world is a fine place..." there is a chance for both of them. Not the bleak ending I though for many years after all.
Of course as with any great movie it can be interpreted as you wish, but now I see it this way I prefer this and feel it improves the movie. Thanks for the long read, I hope you watch the movie next time with some of these thoughts in mind and if you do, feel free to leave your thoughts below.