“Se7en” suffers from the same problem that blinded viewers when watching “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” that its chief protagonists have little to no impact on the progression of the story. Indiana Jones could toss a whip and knock out Nazis with the best of them, but the SS was going to get their hands on the ark, regardless of whether Jones’ felt fedora was lurking nearby. In “Se7en,” everything that Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) do is of relatively no consequence. Their methodical police work diverted the killing path of John Doe (Kevin Spacey), but he was always en route to deliver what he had promised, no matter whose head was in the box.
This lack of protagonist influence or consequence doesn’t make “Seven” an unenjoyable venture. Directed by David Fincher, the film is an early example of the pristine shots and gloomy, nihilist vibe that would pervade his later masterworks like “Zodiac” and “Gone Girl.” Through “Se7en’s” cinematography alone, it feels like we’re watching something of quality, even though the storytelling never replicates that vibe.
Somerset and Mills are detectives in a major U.S. city whose only identifiers are its bellowing subway system and endless rain. This city could easily be New York, although the film’s penultimate sequence was clearly filmed in the harsh desert of California. The lack of identification could be argued to serve the film’s underlying theme, that not just this city but the entire world has been reduced to an immoral pile of shit. What happens instead, though, is that “Se7en” never properly builds a world where anything that happens feels all that realistic.
The grim realities of this fake world have weathered Somerset to the point where he feels the need to retire. It’s only when John Doe starts a calculated, killing spree inspired by the biblical seven deadly sins that Somerset decides to stick it out with Mills in hopes of finding the culprit. The two are always are always two steps behind John Doe, their combined years of police work essentially made useless to a guy with some knives and a lot of spare time on his hands.
The crime scenes are impressively gruesome but intellectually tiresome. The film feels the need to literally spell out what sin each death is supposed to represent, as if we were too stupid to tell the one with the strap-on knife dildo was meant to signify lust. Even Somerset’s late night visits to a local library are used as a method of vicariously shaming the supposedly dumb viewer, with Somerset poking fun at a group of library security guards for playing poker on their off-time instead of reading any of the thousands of books behind them. But if we were to ask why Somerset only reads for work and not for pleasure, he’d give us a sigh and a chastising “kids these days…” remark.
“Se7en” is meant to be than just the race to catch John Doe, but also a study of the emotional trials and tribulations the detectives must complete on the trail. Mills is constantly depicted as immature, moody and impulsive, the perfect cinematic foil to Somerset’s rational, reserved and balanced nature. Mills doesn’t necessarily grow as a person through the movie and neither does Somerset. Rather, the killings bring a deeper understanding of who these characters really are and always will be: flawed people whose darndest efforts will always be thwarted by the inevitability of human malice.
It’s an interesting dynamic, two heroes with so easily-identifiable flaws that John Doe bases his entire scheme around them. But the most rewarding relationship of the film is between Somerset and Mills’ wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow). Out of the blue, Tracy invites Somerset to dinner, and the two later meet up at a restaurant for a heart-to-heart chat. The sequence initially feels weird, as Tracy barely knows Somerset and someone in her position wouldn’t be inclined to confess their emotional struggles to him. But when you realize that Tracy literally has nobody else in this city to talk with about her husband or her life, the desperate plea for friendship and counseling is all the more heartbreaking.
And then there’s the ending, applauded for its bravery in diverting expectation. But on further examination, the closing feels like it came from some afternoon film school brainstorming session, a set-up that only succeeds if we agree to suspend our disbelief to previously unimaginable depths. We’re happy to do that though, since that sense of faux quality is always amorphous and present in the film. Just like pristine wedding photos don’t determine a happy marriage, “Se7en’s” lush visuals don’t hide the fact that this is just a B-level movie coated in A-list armor.