Monday, December 14, 2009


As I wrote in an earlier entry, I usually claim The Empire Strikes Back as my all-time favorite move. Catch me on the right day, though, and I might name Se7en instead. There's simply nothing about it that doesn't enthrall me. I can still remember the "Holy crap, is this really happening?" experience of seeing it in the theatre for the first time. Hell, the first three times I saw it I jumped out of my chair when the heroin addict suddenly comes out of his deathly stupor after the SWAT team arrives.

I'm not going to waste time pointing out what's great about this film. If you've seen it, you know it's amazing. If you haven't, stop reading now, and don't come back until you've remedied the situation. Oh, and you're not allowed to watch it on basic cable with commercials, all cut up. Rent (actually, buy it; you'll thank me later) the dvd, turn out the lights, and hang on for the ride. I suppose there are those squeamish types who can't handle the intensity of Se7en and claim it's "too violent." That's ironic, since there is virtually no onscreen violence; none of the murders are depicted, only their aftermath.

What I want to write about is an angle that I only came up with after viewing the film perhaps six or se7en times. As far as I can recall, I discovered it on my own, although I'm sure others must have the same theory. When I bring it up to people, even those who've seen the movie bunch of times, most poo-poo it. But I'm convinced the subtext is there, a malignant tumor hiding under the scaly surface of this magnificent flick.

In a nutshell, I believe that Morgan Freeman's detective Somerset is a mildly dirty cop who unwittingly helps John Doe find and kill his partner's wife.

Consider the following:

-In an early scene, Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) tells his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) "Serpico's gotta go." She responds by saying, "Serpico's got a crusty in his eye." Anyone who's seen the excellent Pacino flick knows that Serpico was an honest cop brought down by a thug's bullet when crooked members of his department failed to help him.

-After Mills goes off on the photog in the stairwell, he asks Somerset, "How do those guys get here so fast, anyway?" Somerset replies calmly, "They pay police officers for information, and they pay well." Mills' responds, "Hey, I'm sorry, man."

-Then there's a moment that's easy to miss because of everything else that's going on in the scene: After Doe walks into the police station to turn himself in ("DE-TEC-TIVE!"), the camera focuses on Somerset's shocked expression and then cuts to Doe, who is looking at him curiously. Amidst Mills' shouted admonitions, Doe quietly notices, "I know you." Why would he know Somerset and make a point of saying so unless they had a past connection of some sort? Say, an agreement to sell information about police operations and even fellow officers?

-Less solidly, there's a lot going on during the ride to the desert between the three men. The interplay between Mills and Doe is full of barely concealed rage, while Somerset is much more measured and cautious. He's polite and deferential toward Doe, almost as if he's trying not to anger the prisoner. Why not? Is he afraid Doe will reveal their connection? I say yes.

-When Doe taunts Mills by informing him that his wife was pregnant when he killed her, Mills only looks at him in bewildered anguish. Doe gives a small smile and turns to Somerset, saying, "Oh. He didn't know." But Somerset does know. Tracy tells him over lunch in an earlier scene. Did Somerset let that nugget of info slip to the man who was paying him for information? By itself, it doesn't mean much, but stacked up with everything else, it's intriguing, ain't it?

-Lastly, there's the overall theme of the film. The whole thing is Biblical in nature, with the seven deadly sins being the most obvious connection. But Mills' character can also be seen as Christ-like. He's incorruptible. He comes to a morally bankrupt society and attempts to change things through his shining example. Ultimately, he becomes part of Doe's plan when his anger over the loss of his beloved wife causes him to murder Doe. He doesn't die, but his life as a policeman and respected citizen is essentially ended.

However, through his death, Somerset is given new life. For most of the film, he is an apathetic burnout bent on retirement. However, as they load Mills into the car during the film's final scene, one of the other cops calls out, "Hey, Somerset! Where you gonna be?"

With a sadness tinged by a new-found resolve, Somerset replies, "Around. I'll be around."

Nolanometer Final Grade: A+


Lance Christian Johnson said...

I always thought that Doe was talking to Mills when he said, "I know you." Wasn't he referring to how he encountered him when he was pretending to be a photographer?

Lance Christian Johnson said...

Oh, and here's something for you.

Jessica said...

Conspiracy theory, wha?

You're forgetting the part of the movie where Morgan Freeman gets the library records from the informant.

He's definitely been in the game long enough to know, and play, all the angles.

Nolan said...

Lance, I just went back and re-watched the scene. It's not entirely conclusive, but the camera's focus is on Freeman just before it cuts to Spacey and he says, "I know you." The biggest giveaway is Spacey's eyes. We're shown the shot from his perspective where Freeman is on the right. When it cuts back to him, kneeling, he's still looking to his right, presumably at Freeman, instead of Pitt, who is directly in front of him, shouting and holding a gun. While Pitt is all business, Freeman has a shocked/quizzical expression on his face that I read as "Holy crap, why does this guy know me?"

Furthermore, we already know that Doe knows Mills. There was the whole apt. chase where he broke his face. He's just come from killing Mills' wife. It would be redundant to say it the way it was delivered, which is as a realization of sorts. It's not delivered as a taunt at all, which would be the only delivery that made sense.

Ladny, I didn't forget anything. I'm not sure how much that helps my theory, but if you're agreeing with me, kudos.

Simon said...


What's the deal with the Serpico reference - I don't get your point there, is Serpico a reference to Freeman's character? Or to Pitt?


Nolan said...

Simon, Mills (Pitt) is referring to himself as "Serpico."

Simon said...

Got it, makes perfect sense in context. A stretch on its own, of course.

Jessica said...

Yeah, I grudgingly am agreeing with your theory.

Anonymous said...

Somerset didn't tell John Doe about Tracy being pregnant because at the end John Doe saids she begged for her life and the life of her unborn child...thus saying she told him. I don't think he was in on it....What a great movie!