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I am of the opinion that when it comes to tragedy in fiction, merely depicting evil is insufficient and reveling in or capitulating to evil is failure (*coughChinatowncough*). On the contrary, I believe that the best fictional tragedies are those that help the audience cope with real-world tragedies. I believe that one of drama’s highest reasons for being is so that we may examine the evils of the world and endure simulated pain so the true evils and real pains may be easier to deal with when they inevitably come. As a case in point, I can think of no greater example than Se7en.

On the surface, Se7en seems like a film with a very straightforward plot. You’ve got Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman), a detective just about to retire; you’ve got Detective Mills (Brad Pitt), who just moved into town with his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) as Somerset’s replacement; and you’ve got a serial murder case in which the young and old detectives are forced into working together. Yet it doesn’t take very long to realize that this is no ordinary buddy cop movie.

At its heart and core, this film is a meditation on evil. What evil is, why it exists and how we keep on living in spite of the knowledge that evil has always been and will always continue. It’s ultimately that last question that really powers the movie and informs the motivations of our characters.

Somerset wants to retire and move away from the city because he hates how apathetic people have grown towards crime. Mills wants to keep on fighting the good fight, holding to the belief that there’s more to life and people than mindless pain. His wife, Tracy, grapples with the question of how anyone could settle down and raise a family surrounded by squalor and sin. Last but not least is our murderer, John Doe, who responds to evil by taking matters into his own hands and becoming something even more terrible than what he beheld.

All the while, the film implicitly asks us, the audience, what we’re going to do when faced with evil. Are we going to keep fighting through it (Mills), up and quit (Somerset) or just go mad (Doe)?

This can be a very difficult film to sit through, though the movie is good enough to provide some lenient moments for relief. The dinner scene at Mills’ house is probably my favorite example. These scenes aren’t enough to entirely break the film’s bleak atmosphere, but it is enough to serve as a reminder that there’s more to life than doom and gloom. Still, what really keeps the film bearable is how it ends. The ending is decidedly unhappy and the murderer’s plan is ultimately carried out to the letter, yet this reign of terror is one that does not and cannot last. Though the killings may be forgotten and some other atrocity may take their place in the headlines, at least this particular abomination is gone for good. Moreover, the film ends with the explicit statement that though the world isn’t always nice, it’s still worth fighting for, and a lead character is given a new resolve to do so. That optimism may not be much and it may be misplaced, but it’s still better than nothing.

The actors in this film are all phenomenal. Brad Pitt very effectively plays Mills as a tough and smart — albeit young and relatively inexperienced — character who’s eager to prove himself and see justice done, avoiding most of the pitfalls typical of his character in the “buddy cop” formula. Morgan Freeman, meanwhile, brings all of his considerable talent to the task of making all Somerset’s intelligence and weariness visible. He may be in the process of running away, but this character has clearly seen and sacrificed so much that it’s hard to begrudge him for being tired. R. Lee Ermey gives a surprisingly sympathetic performance, Gwyneth Paltrow is adorable and Kevin Spacey gives one of the creepiest performances I’ve ever seen.

The screenplay for this film is amazing from start to finish. The characterization is very strong, the dialogue is exceptional and the mystery plotline is nicely unpredictable. The pacing is also very tight, with every scene exactly where it needs to be and as long as it needs to be. There was one shot in particular that impressed me, as Mills and Somerset walk into the police station… only for the camera to hold just a bit longer as the killer walks into frame. Very nice. Really, the visuals in this film are amazing. The grungy atmosphere is incredibly pervasive, the murder scenes are presented without mercy and the DoP’s use of bleach-bypass was revolutionary for its time.

Se7en may well be among the greatest movies I’ve ever seen in my life and that is not a statement I make lightly. This is a deeply intelligent film that forces us to acknowledge the suffering that human beings can inflict on each other while daring us to remain optimistic in spite of it. The superb acting, the solid screenplay and the marvelous filmmaking are just icing on the cake. It may not be an easy film to watch, but it’s still a modern-day masterpiece.

One Comment

  1. Ping from Boozer:

    You should watch The French Connection if you haven’t seen it. It’s based on a true story but the characterization may let you foresee the ending, also possibly a statement on evil. Compared to Se7en it has a lot going for it. In Chinatown I thought we got a bait-and-switch: it matters, no it doesn’t. It seems important but it’s just another case. That underscores the tragedy. We don’t know that all Jake’s cases suggest evil always wins. Remember the origin of the Black Freighter from Watchmen?

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