Se7en (1995) explained: how to create hell on Earth

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In Seven, Detectives Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) hunt a serial killer who may be the devil himself.

What is Seven about?

Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is days from retiring, with newbie David Mills (Brad Pitt) due to take over his role. But when the pair investigate the death of an obese man, Somerset spots the signs of a serial killer – a murderer who intends to recreate the seven deadly sin over seven days.

How the film references hell

Seven is about two detectives – one young, one old – hunting a sadistic serial killer. Hell is central to the telling of this tale.

The film uses hellish imagery, it talks about sin, and it evokes and reinforces (mostly Christian) ideas about the afterlife.

Most obviously, the film has a very dark colour palette – muddy tones, blacks and browns. It’s set in dimly lit basements and on rainy days. It’s difficult to see what’s going on – that goes for the audience as well as the detectives. We’re all finding our way in the dark … and in the dark, there are monsters.

The soundtrack, certainly during the opening titles but also elsewhere, is claustrophobic and nerve-shredding, too.

So Seven is a dark film, and the plot tightens the screws. There’s murder and torture designed not only to shock, but to have you question your own responses. In that sense, the film shares something with its thematic source material, classical texts that describe (and partly invented) our concepts of hell and atonement.

Andrew Kevin Walker, who wrote Seven, plays the first dead body we see in the movie.

The book chase

The ‘book chase’ was a staple in films before the internet age – and often in movies with devilish connections.

These days, characters can learn what they need from the internet (a vast layman’s guide to all knowledge, if you like). Earlier films often rely on libraries or bookshop owners to introduce and explain hidden or arcane knowledge. This often coincides with moving the plot forward.

Take WarGames (1983), an action drama about a teen who accidentally hacks a military computer and almost triggers nuclear war. In the pre-digital era of the film, Matthew Broderick’s computer genius must still use a library to get the information he needs.

Seven’s ‘librarian’ is Detective Somerset. His role is to steer Mills (and viewers) through the film, the literary connections, and hell itself.

Seven’s book references

Seven uses literature as a kind of shorthand. In particular, it relies on and references:

  • Paradise Lost, by John Milton, an epic poem about humanity’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden.
  • Purgatorio, the second book of The Divine Comedy, which shows how those who break the seven deadly sins must atone. Dante’s 14th-century vision of hell is probably the one most of us have in mind (when we think of hell, that is).
  • The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer – specifically the Parson’s Tale.
  • Plus minor references to The Dictionary of Catholicism and the works of St Thomas Aquinas.

Name-dropping these books is meant to give insight (or clues) to the mind of killer “Jonathan Doe” (Kevin Spacey). And they’ve become so influential in defining what hell is like that we don’t need to be familiar with them to understand what they signify in the movie – something wicked.

At the same time, the idea of ‘knowing-not knowing’ is a key theme. Not understanding (or not being able to see something clearly, as in the dark) often makes things seem more frightening. So not being familiar with these texts in detail – as most of us aren’t – actually works in the film’s favour. It gives licence to spin more terror from what we don’t fully comprehend.

This is repeated in the pairing of Somerset and Mills. Somerset explains the literary connections to Mills, and therefore to viewers. Reading scares Mills – remember he calls Dante a “poetry writing faggot” – while Somerset is quite at home in libraries.

“Just because he has a library card doesn’t make him Yoda.”

Mills

From Purgatorio to Paradise Lost

Seven borrows themes, images and ideas from Milton and Dante, mirroring and mimicking aspects of their works to reinforce hellish concepts in the film. Some of this is deliberate, some coincidental (yet no less relevant for it).

  • Somerset is the guide. It’s his job to introduce Mills to the job, but he’s also a kind of Raphael. Like the angel in Paradise Lost, Somerset dines with Adam and Eve (David and Tracy) and tries to warn Mills about the horrors of sin. There are also shades of Virgil, the wise poet who guides Dante through hell in The Divine Comedy.
  • The unnamed city where the film is set is a kind of limbo (the staging area in Dante’s Purgatorio). Compare how most police officers are only interested in the mechanics of crime solving, and prefer not to look any further. Good and evil are useless concepts because there’s only disinterest (or self interest) here.
  • The city is a deadened, deadening place – it’s a ruined Garden of Eden (Paradise Lost). In this inverted version of it, Adam and Eve (David and Tracy) are doomed characters. The world they inherit is already ruined, and can never bloom or bear fruit.
  • John Doe is Satan, though the film plays an ‘is he / isn’t he’ game with this. Certainly, he’s anonymous, invisible and creates immense pain and terror. And over seven days, he seeks to destroy God’s creation (Man, hope, life).
  • At the end of the film, Doe takes on the serpent’s guise. In the Bible’s Eden, the serpent tempts Eve to taste the tree of knowledge. Here, it goads Mills, and destroys him with torturous, unwanted knowledge.
  • In Purgatorio, Dante and Virgil ascend a terraced mountain, each level standing for one of the seven deadly sins. Dante must pass through each level (and atone for his sins) before he can reach paradise. In Seven, Somerset and Mills pass through seven trials based on the seven deadly sins.
  • In the inverted world of Seven, the characters reach a dark realisation instead of the promised land. Compare the way Doe leads Mills on a chase on never-ending staircases. Like Joker and Parasite, stairs are an emblem of underworlds and destruction – they are the way down.

The significance of the number seven

The film is shot through with sevens, a number which has significance in Christian theology, too – it’s considered the number of perfection / divinity. The question is, which of these does the film’s title speak to?

  • There are seven murders over seven days. These coincide with Somerset’s last seven days on the job, and Mills’ first seven.
  • The film talks about the seven deadly sins, but there are also seven virtues to oppose them. These include chastity, patience, kindness and diligence. While John Doe represents the sins, the virtues define Somerset’s character.
  • In the Bible, God creates the world in seven days. In the film, Satan (Doe) attempts to destroy it within the same period.
  • Somerset’s badge number – 1024 – adds up to seven (1+0+2+4).

Are the murders staged for Somerset’s benefit?

John Doe reveals one murder a day over seven days. These happen to be Somerset’s last seven days on the force, and Mills’ first seven days. Doe even starts one of his punishments – sloth – exactly one year advance, timing it to be discovered right in the middle of their transition week. This all could be coincidence – but feels more like divine influence.

Moreover, while other detectives could have tracked down John Doe, within the film’s universe, there’s just one capable of doing so. And that’s Somerset.

Somerset suspects a serial killer before anyone else. More importantly, he alone has experience and literary knowledge to spot the pattern of the seven deadly sins. He’s shown as something of an outsider on the force, despised by his colleagues for asking too many questions – yet it’s those very qualities that make him a match for Doe.

This all could be coincidence – but feels more like divine influence.

Somerset is a measured, patient man while Mills – in many ways his opposite – feeds on and reacts to every emotion. This makes the younger detective a perfect foil to Doe’s final murder. Doe can count on Mills executing him in retaliation, thereby completing the last deadly sin, wrath.

In fact, Tracy’s scenes (and the pregnancy storyline) don’t add much to the plot. Their purpose is to trigger Mills’ anger, which means Tracy exists only to get murdered. This is too often the fate of female characters in on-screen murder movies, while the action and insights go to the male characters.

Setting up the finale

Towards the end of Seven, Somerset and Mills are drinking in a bar and picking over the bones of the case so far.

Somerset tries to warn Mills that, “y’know, this isn’t gonna have a happy ending.” Mills replies that he’ll be happy enough when they catch Doe – words which will prove bitterly ironic.

There’s also a nod to the ending and overarching themes of hell and ruined paradise.

“If we catch Doe and he turns out to the Devil himself .. that might live up to our expectations.”

Somerset

If narratives always move towards resolution and satisfaction, this is Somerset’s way of confirming Doe is the Devil.

He also comes close to naming the city as a kind of limbo – a place where apathy rules:

“I just don’t think I can continue to live in a place that embraces and nurtures apathy as if it were a virtue.”

Yet, in the end, Somerset can’t escape from purgatory and enter paradise. Tracey is killed, Mills is destroyed. Somerset’s predictions come true, and he’s left holding yet more evidence that the world is a brutal place.

But perhaps his role isn’t to leave this ruined paradise. As the warrior angel, it’s to stay behind and fight for men’s souls – even if they don’t always deserve saving.

What’s in the box at the end of Seven?

The film never reveals what’s in the box. It’s tempting to assume it’s Tracy’s head – and yet the dimensions make this unlikely. There’s an alternative. Rather than evidence of murder, the box is a storytelling device.

John Doe claims to envy Mills. He says he visited Tracy at home, ‘tried to play husband’, and then killed her – and her unborn baby – and took her head as a souvenir. However, he never says the head is in the box.

Somerset notices blood, but doesn’t say what he’s seen. Whatever it is, it’s horrifying. He tells the other cops to stay away, no matter what happens, because “John Doe has the upper hand”.

It’s likely that the box contains something that confirms Tracy is dead. Given the blood, we’re probably meant to think it’s remains of some kind.

But, in line with the film’s themes of hell and Paradise Lost, it could represent Pandora’s Box. In Greek myth, Pandora was the first woman (another Eve character). Like the Bible’s Eve, Pandora was tempted to taste forbidden knowledge. The box she opens unleashes hell – all human suffering and hardship.

Not only does this speak to the end of Eden, and leaving paradise, it encapsulates what lies ahead for Mills (another kind of living hell).

In the context of this movie about concepts and myths of hell and creation, however, John Doe’s box may literally be a box of chaos. Somerset can’t describe what he’s seen, and tells the other cops to stay away – perhaps to protect themselves as much as to shield Mills.

So why doesn’t Somerset confirm – or lie – about what’s in the box? Well, Mills reads lack of denial as confirmation that Tracy is dead. Given his role as angel-guide, Somerset can’t lie about what’s in the box because David must have free will to choose good over evil. David chooses to kill in wrath (two sins for the price of one) because Eden is over for him. With Tracy gone, salvation is meaningless.

So the box contains chaos (real or metaphorical). And it’s a plot device that allows Mills to kill Seven, bringing the film to a close.

The endgame

Almost 30 years later, the end of Seven remains fascinating – just as the film predicted. Doe hypes up the twist to Mills and Somerset, saying “wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer.” This describes Mills’ fate, but also the narrative’s end goal.

“Two months from now, no one’s gonna care.”

Mills

Mills is dismissive of Doe’s insanity, but of course he’ll never forget this day. To a lesser extent, neither will viewers, who, as Doe predicts, will ‘puzzle over and study’ what he’s done for a long time. (This could also be a comment on the cult status we too often give killers.)

The film’s final act is quite the enigma. And, like the rest of the movie, suggests Doe is pulling the string with almost divine (or devilish) power.

“There he goes,” Doe announces when Somerset runs off to meet the messenger. And “here he comes,” he says when he returns. So has Doe planned every aspect of the endgame?

Doe knows the cops will be wearing wires. He knows there’ll be some kind of surveillance, and leads the chase to a place where a helicopter can’t follow. He knows Somerset will leave him alone with Mills, thereby enabling the conclusion.

“I was chosen,” he explains in the car ride over. His sermon at this point – about how his victims deserved to die – is shocking, self-serving and delusional. And yet it’s an extreme version of Somerset’s own beliefs … that people are apathetic, and rarely innocent.

The world is a fine place

Ultimately Seven feels like Somerset’s movie. He’s the guide, the angel and the man of wisdom. And he’s the only ‘survivor’ at the end.

Bookish Somerset, who stands for wisdom, experience and knowledge, knows how to find the answers he needs. These qualities are how he spots the work of a serial killer in the first place. In fact, the only other character that we know has a library card is … John Doe.

While Somerset and Mills are binary opposites (white:black, old:young, wise:rash, cynical:hopeful), Somerset and Doe are closer to each other. This is fitting if you see Somerset as an angel and Doe as the Devil – Lucifer is commonly believed to have been an angel first, too.

So in their own ways, Somerset and Doe both see the evil that men do and preach it. Doe even thinking of himself as a kind of preacher – yet with Somerset, he’s preaching to the converted.

All in all, this is a nightmarish world in which God is absent, and the Devil seems to triumph. If that seems a bleak prospect, remember there’s always the possibility the film is just Somerset’s dream. We meet the two detectives in a pre-credits scene. That night Somerset sets his metronome and falls asleep – and then the movie starts.


Seven (1995), directed by David Fincher

Other films like Se7en
  • Knowing (visions of hell, hell on Earth)
  • Angel Heart (fallen angels, visually similar)
  • Devil’s Advocate (Satanic influence)
  • Fallen (a detective chases the devil)
  • The Silence of the Lambs (serial killers, knowledge, classical music)
  • Infernal Affairs (a different take on living hell)

Picture credit: Clay Banks (composite)

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