Se7en: Why John Doe Wins
By Brian Robert Oliver
John Doe is calm and resolute. “Become vengeance, David”. Somerset, the angel on Mills’ shoulder counters “David, if you kill him, he wins”. In the shear chaos of his psyche comes the briefest moment of tranquility. Tracy’s angelic face flashes into Mill’s mind like the eye of a storm, but within a second it passes coming with it the flood of wrath and vengeance. In David Fincher’s Se7en (1997) the bad guy wins. Yes, John Doe wins – the man who forces another man to rape a prostitute with a 2 foot long sword phallus, wins. Perhaps this is the reason for Se7en’s enduring popularity in a genre of two. It’s easy to assume that Fincher and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker would craft a nasty little tale whose only point was to make us believe the heroes were going to win and the bad guy would lose, only to pull the rug out from under us. Not so. While the ending of the film is historically shocking, it’s not because of misdirection. What makes the ending so shocking is that in the world of Se7en, John Doe is the hero.
Why John Doe?
To call John Doe a hero is not a popular opinion. However, if you squint your eyes and readjust your focus, it’s plain to see. Before John Doe’s character is revealed at the end of the second act, Fincher/Walker spend the first two acts showing us why neither Somerset or Mills is the hero by deconstructing them against their hero type. While John Doe’s character is absent from the first two acts of the film, his arc is complete. On the surface it may seem that what Somerset and Mills want is different from that of John Doe. Somerset and Mills want to catch John Doe and John Doe wants to kill people in horrific ways, but this is only when we know the “how” of Doe’s crimes and not the “why”. The true theme of Se7en and its three lead characters is to end evil in the city, and that is their true want. The result being that when you place each man against their hero archetype, only one of them is worthy of hero status.
The Case for John Doe:
In the car Somerset asks Doe “Who are you, John?” to which he replies “It doesn’t matter who I am”. From the first moment we set eyes on John Doe, it is clear, he is in the form of the prophet. The low angle places him on a pedestal; his bald head and his out held arms like Buddha/Jesus gathering his flock. A true prophet speaks to god and does his bidding. He claims to have been called by a higher power to “turn the sin upon its sinner”. After all, to get someone’s attention as John Doe claims “… you can’t just tap them on the shoulder. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer.” He has killed Tracy, put her head in a box marked for Detective David Mills so that he will pay the price for his envy, and to kill the hero cop myth through Mill’s vengeance.
As dark as it is, John Doe has a point. People do terrible things every day and never pay the price for it. We the people know this and yet, we do nothing to help. It is left up to the heroes, the police to do something about it and when they fail we say “welp, that’s just the way it goes.” We are all guilty. Of course, a true prophet must be martyred. Like Jesus, the ultimate martyr, John Doe dies for our sins as well as his own. This is what the hero’s journey looks like, and more troubling, it is clear that Detective Somerset agrees with him.
The Case Against Somerset
Detective Somerset wears a beige hat and a matching coat, and when you see him in side profile, you can’t unsee it; Somerset is in the mold of Sherlock Holmes. He is also the perfect detective and a damn good cop accept for one glaring issue. Somerset doesn’t believe that he can prevent evil. In fact, Somerset doesn’t believe evil can be stopped at all. Basically, not only does Somerset not believe himself to be the hero, he doesn’t believe heroes exist. Worse, in his mind, even if heroes did exist, it wouldn’t matter because people suck. He spent his entire career trying to be the cop the city needed, but no one cared.
So, Somerset is not the hero. However, he is the consummate investigator, and therefore the perfect witness. It is through his eyes we see this world which is why the tone of the film is so dark and nihilistic, yet visually it is orderly and balanced. As Somerset puts it, his job as a cop is “putting everything into neat little piles and filing them away”. Basically, he is performing a useless duty to an ungrateful public, therefore there are no heroes. He cannot think outside the box. So, during the car scene as John Doe makes his case as the hero, Somerset agrees with him. Not the murdering, but the apathy of society is exactly what has driven Somerset into retirement. He understands that there is a serious limit to what a cop can do, but John Doe was free to do whatever he wanted. Up until this scene, Somerset was beginning to believe someone else was the hero – Detective David Mills.
The Boy Who Would Be King: Mills
If anyone looks the part of the hero, it’s Detective Mills. In fact, the first time we meet him he is in the act of ascending the steps of a crime scene and his hair is top lit like a halo or a crown. He’s handsome but sloppy. His shirt is wrinkled and he keeps a hanger full of pre-tied ties handy. He wants us to believe he is the kind of cop that doesn’t have time to fuss with his appearance, he’s got bad guys to catch. On his second day on the job he calls himself Serpico. Serpico was a real life hero cop who was shot in the face by his fellow officers because he wasn’t dirty like them. He calls him himself Serpico on his second day on the job. Mills fulfills the role of the hard-nosed – doesn’t play by the rules – stays up all night to solve the case detective like the ones you see on TV. He enters into crime scenes and says things like “what do you got for me fellas” or “ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a homicide”.
Serpico/Martin Riggs/John McClane/Philip Marlowe
He is the TV/Movie cop. In other words, he’s a fake cop – a fraud. He is not what he appears to be even though he is filmed from a low angle and is regularly photographed with crosses in the frame as well as with a few gods. THIS is the misdirection. Who finds out that John Doe is a serial killer? Which character finds the fingerprints on the wall at the greed crime scene? Who realizes that john Doe is referencing literature, and therefore tracks him down by his library card? Somerset, not Mills. Yet, at every turn when Somerset is ready with sage advice and thoughtful analysis, there is Mills ready to mark up the occasion with his idiocy. The only things he manages to do is let the killer slip through his fingers not once, but twice. Yet, the entire film he always believes he is the hero. He thinks it so convincingly that he nearly fools everyone around him, including Somerset and by extension, us.
John Doe Wins
Our three main characters ultimately want the same thing, or at least their archetype’s do; to prevent evil and make the city a better place to live. The only character worthy of being a hero doesn’t believe in heroes. Another character believes his is the hero, yet possesses none of the attributes that makes a hero. Finally, the last man not only believes he is the hero, but executes a shocking plan meant to scare the city to its core and out of its apathy. So, who gets what they want? John Doe. Finally, consider this: in Mills most heroic moment, he chases John Doe throughout the city, sacrificing his own safety in the name of the law. In the end, it is John Doe standing above Mills with a gun to his head. What does Mills do when he has the chance to die a hero’s death? He pleads with Doe “No.” Is that a hero? The truth is, Mills doesn’t actually want what Somerset and John Doe want. He doesn’t want to solve evil, he only wants to be the hero. THAT is why John Doe wins.
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