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David Fincher's Se7en - A Study of Evil

Post Graduate (Master of Arts) in English Literature and Philosophy

Last Judgement by Michelangelo

Last Judgement by Michelangelo

The Elementary Question of Evil

What is evil? Is it just the manifestation of sin - or is it something deeper, more psychological?

Nolan’s version of Joker turned the question of evil on its head by making evil the ‘default setting’ human morality. The Joker in The Dark Knight declared unequivocally - “See, their morals, their code... it's a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you. When the chips are down, these, ah, civilized people? They'll eat each other.” The Joker narrates how evil manifests itself in society - or rather, whether we can distinguish someone as evil since (according to him) we are all alike. In Joker’s mind, there was no Biblical fall from the garden which caused the society to descent into evil. In his thought process, it was more or less a natural state - something animalistic or elemental, hardwired into our DNA, its nature being epistemological. But, despite being philosophically astute, the Joker’s version does not answer the basic question on the nature of evil. What is it and what causes it?

David Fincher has always been fascinated (and has fascinated the viewers) with the darker side of the human psyche portrayed on screen. His filmography speaks volumes about his penchant to dabble in the study of human evil. Originally a music video director (Michael Jackson’s Who Is It was directed by him), he first made name for himself with the not-so-good sequel of Alien 3. But from his second feature Se7en (read Seven) he veered towards the exploration of human iniquity. He had made films like Zodiac, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, all of which investigates criminality in human society. But Se7en problematizes the question of evil like no other film in his filmography.

Police Procedural - Enter the Good Cop and Bad Cop

Fincher once said that Se7en begins as straightforward police-procedural but ends as a morality play. Early on, we meet the world-weary veteran detective Somerset and his hotheaded young partner Mills. Somerset is on the verge of retirement while Mills is just getting started as a detective. The world-view of both the detectives are one-eighty degrees apart, Somerset being the pessimist having seen the depravity of ‘humanity’ while Mills being the optimist as a newly married man at the start of his career. Their constant bickering forms a dialogue between the darkness and light in human society. We see Somerset describing the crimes he encountered as a detective in gruesome details while noting that in most cases the system failed to deliver justice because of legal, procedural and bureaucratic hindrances. “So many corpses roll away unrevenged” - he remarks, underlining that the human system of delivering justice is flawed and more often than not it creates roadblocks for the police who are entrusted to ensure law and order.

I first came across the analysis of evil of Se7en in a youtube video by the youtube channel named “The Take”. The content argues that in Se7en since ‘John Doe’ (Kevin Spacey’s character) has the last laugh over Mills and Somerset, in the film the evil wins - which is unlike medieval morality plays, a trope that David Fincher used as a narrative device in the film. The video essay goes on to proclaim that the world of Se7en is so much upended in its immorality and general apathy towards crime that perseverance of evil is not abnormal.

Therein I detected a basic fallacy in the video essay’s argument. The video portrays the character of John Doe as evil. But is he evil though - at least in the classical sense?

Criminality and Society

Evil is someone who benefits by breaking or bending the rules of society and operating outside the law. His/Her actions may harm innocents for the person’s personal gain. In Se7en, John Doe does not gain anything by virtue of his actions. In fact, it is suggested that he might not enjoy his actions at all. His actions are depicted almost like a religious calling, something he has to do for the betterment of the society as a whole. He is an intensely religious person whose spirituality almost borders on mania.

But he possesses a deeply calculative mind. Though he does not appear to enjoy his actions, they do have meaning in themselves. The fact that he operates outside the law does not merit an argument. But he operates outside the legal framework as the secular society sees the legal framework. In his mental headspace, John Doe follows the legal framework as per religious sanctions. His library reading list provides an insight into his version of a utopian society as stipulated by religious law, which punishes the transgressors of the seven deadly sins as prescribed in Christian theology. John Doe observes the daily life in secular society with much contempt as he sees people trespassing the deadly sins. He notes that the secular legal framework is ill-equipped to render justice, a sentiment he shares with Somerset. The veteran detective at one point declares that it is dismissive to rule John Doe as a lunatic, even in the eyes of a rational society because Somerset understands that the work itself has a meaning.

The Shifting Social Norms - Who is a Criminal?

John Doe’s victims would have been criminal themselves if society followed Christian theological laws. In this regard, John Doe might be thought of as an extreme version of Somerset himself. Somerset became jaded in the course of his career as witnessed the inhumanity of the society whereas John Doe took upon himself to rectify the public mindset about apathy towards crime. His deeds were horrifying in themselves but in his mind, they were therapeutic for the society - like medicinal bloodletting or Aristotlean catharsis. He works to set the law right and bring the transgressors to justice. He sees himself as an agent of a vengeful God. In this context, he may be regarded as a medieval lawman, who essentially has the same responsibilities that Somerset and Mills have. It’s just that his version of law stands at odds with the modern form of law and order. He cannot be regarded as a classical villain (and by extension evil) because he recognizes his own shortcomings when he judges himself against his own version of legality. He recognizes that he has committed the cardinal sin of envy and gives himself up to Mills and Somerset to receive his punishment. He shows by example that he, as a dispenser of divine judgement is not outside the purview of the same form of judgement. He did not profit from his work, rather it is both mentally and physically exhausting for John Doe. He did this because of a personal higher calling and a (misplaced??) sense of self-righteousness.

The Criminal as the Lawman

Se7en is not so much a study of evil as it is a study of conflicting social value. Of course, per our understanding of modern law, John Doe is a criminal. But in a society where the absolute sanctity of theological law and ethics is upheld, John Doe might have been a lawman. At some point, before the story starts in Se7en, John Doe decides that secular law cannot fix a broken society. Hence, he reverts back to an earlier form of the law, which had divine consent. Nolan’s Joker wanted to “introduce a little anarchy” in society and make law and order descent into chaos because he saw evil as a natural state. John Doe wanted to rectify the shortcomings of the secular social law and order which helped criminality thrive.

© 2021 Abhijit Chatterjee