The most compelling thing about horror, at least to me, is that it is one of the last pockets in the popular culture of modern, secular society that consistently takes evil seriously. This is especially true of representations of supernatural evil, something enlightened citizens of the 21st century don’t tend to think about in any other context, but horror portrays evil of all kinds in one very specific way that stands in stark contrast to most other genres. In horror movies, evil is sometimes triumphant. In horror, the victory of the good and the virtuous is not a foregone conclusion. In fact, in lots of horror stories, goodness and virtue barely seem to exist.
However, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge one other corner of cinema that deals heavily in evil as a major theme: film noir. Film noir is too slippery to define as a genre, of course. It’s more of a style that originates in a particular cultural moment in American Film. Its heyday came and went decades ago, but the mark it left was so indelible that, despite the complexities of defining it, we all recognize it when we see it (or modern homages to it). Noir films are mostly crime dramas in mostly urban settings with mostly cynical male protagonists who may be either criminals or crimefighters or some combination of both. A noir film may have only some of these qualities or even none of them. Nevertheless, film noir is distinguished by its visual style, which leverages contrasts between light and shadow to maximum effect through cinematography. But of course, this element of style goes far beyond the level of the merely visual. Film noir delves deeply into thematic darkness, as well. What distinguishes noir for me is its consistent willingness to gaze into the heart of human evil, and therein lies the potential for overlap between horror and noir.
Se7en, David Fincher’s 1995 masterpiece, is unmistakably neo-noir, but its obvious horror elements are not as widely recognized. It’s strange to look back now, after nearly a quarter of a century, and remember that this was only Fincher’s second feature, coming after a decade of directing music videos and his feature-length debut with the poorly-received Alien 3 (which he later disavowed). Se7en‘s unflinching stare at human depravity goes far beyond even the bleak cynicism of the average noir film. This story of two detectives hunting a serial killer through a squalid metropolitan hellscape as he brutally mutilates and tortures his victims in an evocation of the traditional seven deadly sins opens with stomach-churningly grotesque and builds from there. This is no mere “thriller.” Se7en is theological horror, set in a world so wicked the film’s moral center couldn’t imagine bringing a child into it, where the film’s antagonist can truthfully say, “We tolerate [sin] because it’s common, it’s trivial.”
I won’t spend too much time listing the circumstantial evidence for how Se7en is a horror movie. The screenwriter’s first credit was an episode of Tales from the Crypt, followed by two horror movies I’d never heard of, then this, probably the film he’s best known for. His later credits include Sleepy Hollow and The Wolfman (2010). The movie’s soundtrack was composed by Howard Shore, whose career has been as diverse as any successful Hollywood composer, but who was certainly best-known for his horror movie soundtracks prior to The Lord of the Rings. And then there’s that deeply-unsettling opening credit sequence, which . . . Well, just watch it:
And, while gumshoes slogging through a ceaseless downpour in a grimy, unnamed city is certainly noir-ish, the art direction and set design of this film are pure horror. It’s not jump-scare horror, but Fincher primes our responses so masterfully that everything lands with devastating effect. The moment where the “corpse” moves at the sloth crime scene loomed so large in my memory that I was shocked on rewatching it how relatively mildly that moment plays out. There are so many moments in this film where Fincher shows just enough to set the imagination racing and no more. And our minds supply details that he probably never could have gotten away with showing, and that wouldn’t have been as disturbing if he had.
Se7en presents 2 major worldviews through the main characters: Detective Mills, Detective Somerset, and John Doe. Somerset’s and John Doe’s views closely resemble each other, while Mills’s stands in contrast to them. Mills’s view is the least-articulated of the three, mostly because he’s such an impulsive, emotional character. He also lacks the education of the other two and is less prone to thoughtful rumination. Nevertheless, his philosophy shows through under his impatience and his desire to prove himself. Mills’s view is the one we want to believe: That he can make a positive difference. That the evils of this world can be fixed. That wickedness is unnatural, a symptom of mental illness.
Throughout the movie we watch him struggle to hold onto this view even as it no longer matches his experience. After the lust murder, Mills interviews the booth attendant from the entrance to the brothel where the crime took place, and can’t quite hide his revulsion at the man’s apathy towards what goes on all around him:
“Do you like what you do for a living? These things you see?” he demands.
“No, I don’t. But that’s life.” Mills can’t accept this.
Later, he confronts Somerset’s world-weary bleakness head-on: “You want me to agree with you, and you want me to say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re right. It’s all fucked up. It’s a fucking mess. We should all go live in a fucking log cabin.’ But I won’t. I won’t say that. I don’t agree with you. I do not. I can’t.”
Mills doesn’t seem to realize that refusing to believe isn’t quite the same thing as disbelief.
Meanwhile, John Doe and Somerset both see this world exactly as it is, though they respond very differently to what they see. Late in the movie, Mills asks how Somerset got the way he is, and he says, “I just don’t think I can continue to live in a place that embraces and nurtures apathy as if it was a virtue,” but he doesn’t really answer the question. I think we get the clearest glimpse of the answer in the moments before Mills first appears in the film, as Somerset is taking in a bloody crime scene where a woman has killed her husband. As Somerset walks slowly through the apartment, the other detective at the scene talks about how pleased he is to have an open-and-shut case, but Somerset, who has paused to look at a refrigerator decorated with drawings, has a question: “Did the kid see it?”
The other detective is incensed: “What kind of fucking question is that? We are all gonna be real glad when we get rid of you, Somerset. You know that? It’s always these questions with you. Did the kid see it? Who gives a fuck? He’s dead. His wife killed him. Anything else ain’t got nothing to do with us.”
This is who Somerset is. He has no more power than anyone around him to turn back the tide of evil that floods this city, but he is fully aware of it, and cares about it, in a way that his colleagues have managed not to be and they dislike him for it. Like Mills, they don’t agree. They can’t. It isn’t possible to do the job they do and at the same time be totally conscious of what this world is. Even Somerset can’t go on doing it, which is why he’s retiring even though he acknowledges that this perhaps makes him part of the problem:
“I didn’t say I was different or better. I’m not! Hell, I sympathize; I sympathize completely. Apathy is a solution. I mean, it’s easier to lose yourself in drugs than it is to cope with life. It’s easier to steal what you want than it is to earn it. It’s easier to beat a child than it is to raise it. Hell, love costs: it takes effort and work.” He is burned out on the effort and the work.
And yet, this is almost exactly how John Doe sees the world: “Only in a world this shitty could you even try to say [the victims] were innocent people and keep a straight face. But that’s the point: we see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it’s common, it’s trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon, and night.” It’s not just the sinfulness of the world, it’s the apathy towards sin that he can’t tolerate. Somerset was correct when he guessed earlier that “These murders are [John Doe’s] sermons to us.”
Somerset and John Doe also agree on another important point that Mills vehemently denies. After the sloth murder, Somerset cautions Mills, “It’s dismissive to call him a lunatic. Don’t make that mistake,” but Mills is having none of it. Later on, Somerset tries again: “If we catch John Doe and he turns out to be the Devil – I mean, if he’s Satan himself – that might live up to our expectations. But he’s not the Devil. He’s just a man.”
Mills is adamant: “We are talking about people who are mentally ill. We are talking about people who are fucking crazies.”
Somerset is just as insistent: “No. No, we’re not. We’re talking about everyday life here. You – you can’t afford to be this naive!”
But here, as elsewhere, Mills doesn’t agree. He can’t. Eventually, he has a chance to ask John Doe himself, “When a person is insane, as you clearly are, do you know that you’re insane?”
John Doe replies, “It’s more comfortable for you to label me as insane.”
Mill says, “It’s very comfortable,” but almost certainly doesn’t understand how true that statement is. It is righteousness, not wickedness, that is abnormal and unnatural here. Minutes later, Mills’s comfort is permanently destroyed as he becomes John Doe’s final victim. And, as if to prove that point, he does so by choice.
This is the moment where the steadily-building sense of dread that has been rising for 2 hours spills over into existential dread. Mills fills the hero role in this movie. He isn’t perfect, but he’s likable. He’s determined. He’s courageous. He cares. He wants to make a difference. And in the movie’s final minute, evil wins because he chooses to let it. John Doe instructs him to “become wrath” and he does, because that’s part of who he is, too.
In Se7en, not only are the “good guys” unable to effectively battle the wickedness of the world, they are ultimately complicit in it. They, and all of us, are just as much a part of this evil world as John Doe himself. There is no escape from sin and its consequences here because we can’t escape from ourselves.
If that isn’t scary, I don’t know what is.