“Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer. ” –John Doe At first glance, this sentiment would seem to be the prevailing attitude of the film Seven, a movie which contains more graphic, repulsive violence and gore than any in recent memory. The opening scene, and especially the credits that follow, are cut together at break-neck speed. Brief shots of barely identifiable actions are interrupted by a black screen with the credits scrawled on them like a child would on a chalkboard.
Add to that the computerized chaos of a Nine Inch Nails song, and the feeling that you’re stuck watching MTV is unescapable. But what is the message of the film, and how is it produced? An integral part of understanding how meaning is manufactured in any film, especially in a detective movie, is the difference between story and plot. The plot of a film consists of everything visible and audibly present in the actual movie. The story of a film is the set of all events, both the ones presented, and the ones the viewer infers, that occur in a movie.
The inferences in any film, but particularly in a detective story, allow us to draw multiple possible conclusions in our mind which is a tool for creating suspense. From this we see that the plot of the story is consciously responsible for the inferences which we draw from the film. And of course, the structure of a film determines the plot. Seven is an unusual film throughout. Most detective films present a complicating action (a crime such as a murder, robbery, etc.
), and then give you an hour or two of the evaluation segment of the narrative, in which the director presents an array of misleading clues, causing the viewer to imagine many different endings for the film, none of which are correct. Seven does start out with a crime, but what follows is an extended orientation in which we get to know both Brad Pitt’s character, Mills, and Morgan Freeman’s character, Somerset. We are introduced to a sub-conflict in the film, that of Somerset’s conflicting feelings over his impending retirement.
At the beginning of the film, we also get a very stereotypical feel for what the killer must be like, through his brutal crimes and the evidence he leaves behind. But we never see a series of faces, or even a single face, of a possible suspect. Later in the movie, we know the name of the suspect. John Doe, we have seen his apartment, and we have seen him from a distance in a chase with detective Mills. We still have no idea who he is, other than “the murderer. ” Thus we have no period of evaluation, no opportunity to push past the limits of the plot to ask, “was it Colonel Mustard in the kitchen with the knife?
” There are only two possibilities, that John Doe did it or that he did not. The latter can be eliminated, because we don’t have anymore plausible suspects. And then finally, out of nowhere, John Doe appears in the middle of the police station, covered in blood. We have a face to go with the killer, and we have what seems to be the resolution of the film. However, we don’t have a why. Why would John Doe stop his killing spree, when he was in no serious danger of being found? Frequently in Seven this question of why is the prime motivating factor in the progression of the narrative.
In this case, it leads us to the actual evaluation of the film, in which Mills and Somerset take John Doe out alone in a squad car to finish the game. Now we begin to wonder about the future, to infer events beyond the basic limits of the plot. The viewer begins to imagine a multitude of possible endings. We realize that what appeared to be the resolution of the film is really only the main complicating action. What is John Doe’s plan? Has he prepared an ambush for Mills and Somerset? Will detective Mill’s wife be one of the victims? Will the director surpass the brutality and horror of the previous murder scenes?
The fact that the two detectives are willingly playing along only adds to the tension. Ostensibly, Seven is a movie which opposes traditional cultural values. In the final, “correct” resolution one of the two protagonists goes stark raving mad, and the twisted lunatic “wins. ” This is not a happy ending. However, the addition of one final, brief narrative segment, the coda (or the “tying up of loose ends”), changes the entire attitude of the film. These two lines take an uncharacteristic Hollywood ending, and turn it into a socially palatable ending, fit for mass consumption.
Somerset says in effect that the world is a cruel, evil place but that it is still worth fighting for. This could easily be seen as the intended thesis of the film. The good guy is back and he’s ready to fight the good fight. The American myth is preserved. There exists, however, another possible thesis of the film, one which is driven solely by the movie. While in the squad car with Mills and Somerset, John Doe begins to talk about why he has committed these horrible murders. He has a mission: to show people that they have failed God by permitting sin to occur, with impunity, all around them.
“We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it’s common place, it’s trivial. ” John Doe is determined to end this. He claims that his act will cause people to ponder and discuss the ramifications of the deadly sins for years to come. But his logic is flawed. With his actions, John has done nothing but increase the stakes. Initially, the murders were horrifying, disgusting. But as the film progresses, the effects of the gruesome acts lessen, become more tolerable.
A vicious cycle is formed in which the perpetrator of an act must resort to continually increasing acts of violence, in order to dramatically drive home his point. On a symptomatic level, the interpretive level at which the film speaks of society at large, Seven is a self-critical argument of the desensitizing effects of repeated violence in the media today. The drawn out orientation of the film, with its brutal murder scenes, serves as a short example of the process by which we as a society have become adjusted to the proliferation of violent crime.
Seven is susceptible to the same kind of criticism which has troubled the band Green Day, namely that though the boys try to look and act like a snot nosed punk band, underneath it all they’re basically just pop stars with bad hair and some catchy songs. Seven is like this, a fast, slick film, which tries to present itself as a movie which is both thematically and formally critical, while in reality its underpinnings are that of popular sentiment. And though it admittedly isn’t typical mainstream cinema, we see the film makes some major concessions to the audience’s ideology.