Thursday, July 14, 2011

Se7en and the Eighth Deadly Sin

There are a number of movies that have been suggested to be a dream sequence of one of the characters, the most famous being The Wizard of Oz:  when we see Dorothy (Judy Garland) waking up in her bedroom in Kansas, it clearly suggests that she imagined the trip over the rainbow.  David Fincher's 1995 Se7ven follows a similar path.
When Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) sets a metronome in the beginning of the film, he falls into bed and goes to sleep, and we don’t see him wake up:  everything that takes place after that, I would like to suggest, is a dream.  Freud tells us, “All dreams are fulfillments of wishes,” so the question is, what is the wish being fulfilled?
A way of maintaining balance.
Put quite simply, Detective Somerset doesn’t want to leave the police force, and his unconscious constructs a circumstance (a dream) that fulfills his wish of being necessary to the force so he doesn’t have to leave and his replacement, Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), has to leave instead. As God created the universe in six days, so with the six days he has left until he is officially off the force, Somerset creates a situation condemning his enemy--Detective Mills--and glorifying himself.
Whenever we see a character asleep, that opens the door to dream interpretation and psychoanalysis. You can argue that, because we see Somerset awaken in this scene, that destroys my thesis about the narrative being largely his dream; I would argue, however, that we don't see him wake up from when he sets the metronome, and it's very possible to dream about dreaming when you are in a dream, as Christopher Nolan's Inception taught us. Another famous cinematic example of a entire film being largely a dream sequence is Alfred Hitchcock's thriller Rear Window, when Jimmy Stewart's character spends the entire film in a wheelchair and he slips in and out of sleep; we see him wake up at times, but we don't know when he is actually asleep or awake because he is looking out the window, windows being symbols of our state of self-reflection and meditation, and nothing provides material for that as well as our dreams do. 
In our dreams, we “hide” things behind symbols: conflicts, desires, fear and anxiety, that we can’t cope with in our waking life, but our unconscious has to release the energy created by these conflicts because of the inner tension it’s causing, and a dream is a means of taking action that we cannot take in reality (think about the film Minority Report). Kevin Spacey (John Doe) is as physically different from Morgan Freeman as can be and this difference helps disguise Somerset as the killer because Somerset is hiding behind John Doe just as John Doe hides the hand prints behind the painting in the lawyer’s office and gluttony is written behind the fridge in the obese man’s house.
My sister brought up an excellent point to me that, I think, supports the dream interpretation theory. If John Doe is a real man (i.e., not a psychoanalytic double for Somerset in Somerset's dream) then how did Doe know Mills would be moving to the city when Doe had been planning the crimes for a year? If this is a typical, linear narrative, then there's a  plot hole, unless we just want to deduce that Doe hadn't finalized who the last victim(s) would be and since Mills got in Doe's way Doe decided to make Mills pay the price. If, however, we want to follow the line of analysis that this IS all a dream Somerset is having, then  Somerset would have known at least a year in advance of his approaching retirement and would have a year of building up resentment about having to leave the force and no longer being needed, so when Somerset couldn't bear the resentment any longer, he goes to sleep and his psyche erupts in this violent dream about how righteous Somerset has been all these years, solving murders and stopping crime, with little or no reward, and now he's being "let go" because, to a workaholic, retirement is a condemnation, it's not a reward. In his heart (following the dream analysis line of thought), Somerset, not Mills, is the one going to jail, because it's Somerset who has lost both his wife (his job) and his child (passing on his legacy and line of work to a new detective of his choosing that he has groomed and prepared, the way a father would leave the family business to a child).
It also helps that The Usual Suspects had been released earlier that same year when Spacey played Verbal Kint, a role that easily provides “doubles” for the character.  “Verbal” refers to his talking all the time, while “Kint" refers to Clark Kent, Superman who had a double identity; but it is his real persona as Keyser Soothsay—which roughly translates to “Father of Lies,”—that Fincher was drawing upon when using Spacey as John Doe so that viewers who had seen the earlier film would already know what was going on by referencing Spacey’s earlier work.
The name “William Somerset” combines two famous writers—William Shakespeare and Somerset Maugham—and provides the vital clue of who the real criminal of the film is, because those writers’ books are among those checked out from the library to “understand” the seven deadly sins.
In perhaps the most famous scene from the film, Det. Mills makes what looks like a shady deal in buying something he shouldn’t, but that he’s buying Cliff Notes to learn about the seven deadly sins, clears him of any wrong doing! He can’t commit a crime that he doesn’t know about, whereas, Somerset is well educated in the ways of sin, evil and darkness so it is this knowledge upon which his unconscious draws to construct the circumstances for Det. Mills’ “fall.”
But there is a second part to dreams:  they show us a side within ourselves that we don’t want to see, and it’s this characteristic of dreams that shows us Somerset’s sins and how they all contribute to the wish fulfillment of not leaving the force.

What is the Eighth Deadly Sin?  
Being a workaholic.
Somerset failed to foster relationships that would give him the satisfaction he needed to become a well rounded individual so that, when his retirement came, he would have those relationships to give him fulfillment, and not have just the fulfillment that comes from one’s work; instead, he is emotionally being cut off from the force just as Tracy’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) head is cut off from her body.  Each one of the sins “atoned” for in the film demonstrates this failure of Somerset.
The Seven Deadly Sins by Bosch who is referenced in the film.
Gluttony:  it’s not the quantity of spaghetti eaten that relates this sin to Somerset, it’s the sameness:  because he never did anything other than his work, there is nothing else that he wants, and so he is a glutton for his work.  It wasn’t the food that killed the obese man, it was the kick in the stomach from John Doe that exploded it open, and for Somerset having to leave his work, that’s a kick in the stomach.
Greed:  he is unwilling to share the police force with anyone else, it is a part of him (hence the lawyer removing a pound of his flesh, which is from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice).
Sloth:  Somerset’s conscious has turned to mush just like the sloth victim’s brain. Somerset tells Mills that sometimes you just have to put on "blinders" to get through the day, but if we put on blinders to get through the film, we won't see what Somerset has really done. The sloth reflects his not “working” on what is truly important, our relationships, and instead working on work. That the sloth victim had been a child molester is very important:  children symbolize the future, and Mills has violated Somerset’s future on the police force. It’s the very next day that Somerset meets with Tracy and discovers she’s pregnant, and the unconscious “writes this in as a part of the dream” so that Somerset can do unto Mills as Somerset dreams Mills is doing to him:  take away the future.
Lust:  all of Somerset’s creative energies and passion have been put into his work, that which is an unnatural relationship, just like the razor blade dildo:  he has failed to nurture a relationship with a natural wife and beget a natural child, other than his accomplishments on the police force.
Pride:  Somerset imagines that Mills isn’t as talented and intelligent as he himself is, and Mills needs Somerset more than Somerset needs Mills.  The model’s nose is cut off because Somerset prides himself on being able to “sniff out” the clues to what is going on, clues that escape Det. Mills like John Doe taking pictures of Mills and then escaping after the chase out of his apartment.
"All is vanity," by C. Allan Gilbert.
Envy: When Somerset is opening the box which contains Tracy’s head, we have to imagine that it is not John Doe speaking to Mills, rather, Somerset, talking about how he envies Mills' relationship with his wife and tried to play the husband:  Tracy called Somerset to talk to Somerset and told him she was pregnant, something that she should have done with her husband, Det. Mills, and this is how Somerset comes between them.  We can “trace” the crime of envy and the other sins through what happens to Tracy because Tracy is the sign of Mills’ stability and healthy development, whereas the absence of Somerset’s wife shows that he himself is not balanced.
Envy was said to rot the flesh because it caused the eye to first sin
Perhaps the biggest puzzle of the film, and the greatest challenge to my thesis that Somerset wants to get Mills off the force, is when Mills chases John Doe out of the apartment and down an alley and John Doe has Mills on the ground and Doe can easily kill him; Mills says, “No,” and Doe runs off.  If Somerset wants Mills “out of commission,” why doesn’t Doe kill him then?
If you have read Shakespeare’s Hamlet, you know the answer.
In a film about the seven deadly sins, Mills is in a state of grace, he humbly asks for mercy and that’s not what Somerset/Doe want, they want him to deserve to die.  Likewise, Hamlet doesn’t want to kill his incestuous uncle/step-father when he is in a state of grace, rather, when he is in a state of sin so he will be divinely punished; Doe/Somerset wait to do Mills in when they have “caught him in the act.”
But remember, as John Doe is approaching Mills, we see his reflection in a puddle of water on the road.  A "reflection," in this instance means seeing something backwards as in a mirror and the dirty water suggests that it's the opposite of grace and the sacramental waters of baptism. This brief moment reinforces John Doe as a manifestation of Somerset's imagination and "double."
But there is a problem:  there are only six deadly sins carried out in the film, not seven:  wrath is not fulfilled by Det. Mills. 
Dante and Virgil are being attacked by the Wrathful.
In Dante's epic poem, The Divine Comedy,  Dante and Virgil are going down the River Styx when they are attacked by the Wrathful and Dante gets angry at them:

"With weeping and with wailing,
Thou spirit maledict, do thou remain;
For thee I know, though thou art all defiled."
Virgil praises Dante:
"Thereafter with his arms he clasped my neck;
He kissed my face, and said: "Disdainful soul,
Blessed be she who bore thee in her bosom
That was an arrogant person in the world;
Goodness is none, that decks his memory;
So likewise here his shade is furious." (Emphasis added)

Far from being an instigator of sin, Det. Mills is being righteous! As earlier when Mills was in a state of grace, before shooting John Doe in the head, Mills says, "God! God!" which many would probably suggest is a taking of the Lord's name in vain, but it's also likely that it is--in it's own way--a prayer.  Being wrathful means not shedding innocent blood, and there is nothing innocent about John Doe/William Somerset.  There are things in this world that should make us angry; “wrath” is when someone is angry for something they have no right to be angry about, like Mills taking Somerset’s place on the police force; if Somerset had not been a workaholic, he would be looking forward to his retirement instead of deeply resenting it. 
The validation of Mills’ righteous anger comes in the car when Mills and Somerset drive John Doe to the destination as John Doe explains his plan of punishing the wicked and Mills gets angry, as he should. The important part of this scene is that it is Somerset who is doing the driving, and that symbol translates to Somerset taking us where he wants us to go; John Doe is literally in the back seat, and nothing else but a back seat driver.
Detail of the Seven Deadly Sins by Bosch; this is gluttony.
But lastly, there is a second side to wrath, sullenness is wrath turned in on itself:

Like the fourth circle of hell, the fifth circle--presented in Inferno 7 and 8--contains two related groups of sinners. But whereas avarice and prodigality are two distinct sins based on the same principle (an immoderate attitude toward material wealth), wrath and sullenness are basically two forms of a single sin: anger that is expressed (wrath) and anger that is repressed (sullenness). This idea that anger takes various forms is common in ancient and medieval thought. Note how the two groups suffer different punishments appropriate to their type of anger--the wrathful ruthlessly attacking one another and the sullen stewing below the surface of the muddy swamp (Inf. 7.109-26)--even though they are all confined to Styx.

In short, Somerset, in being sullen about having to retire, commits the act of wrath. The act of his turning his anger on himself is what gives birth to this dream that brings down Det. Mills. Unless we are informed about what sins are and what virtues are, we are bound by our ignorance to make the wrong choices and become guilty of them ourselves.
John Doe is Somerset’s alter ego, nothing but a figment of the imagination, and he carries out on Mills what is forbidden for Somerset to do (put Mills away from the force or kill him) and do unto Mills what Mills is doing to Somerset: severing him from what he loves.  In short, you can’t kill something that doesn’t exist. The proof of this is John Doe not having any fingerprints: it keeps Somerset from being identified.
So what is the moral of the story? The world is worth fighting for, but if you are Det. Somerset, that means fighting anyone who will come to take your place in the world.
And the world is worth fighting for us, too, but whom do we fight?
Ourselves.
“John Doe” is everyman, he is us and within us and our sins activate him into being.  From within our own being comes the violence, the perverse wishes, the distorted realities and they are all caused by sin. By overcoming our own sins, we fight the evil in the world. For Detective David Mills, “David” represents the one who fought the Goliath of the evil world and “Mills” the miller who works with wood, or the wood of the Cross.  David Mills, then, is bearing the guilt of Somerset’s sins as Somerset goes back to the city, the urban decay and “hell on earth” that his imagination has created and longs for while Mills, like Christ, goes to bear the guilt of sin.