David Fincher is a master of the crime drama. He complicates the typical conception of justice with his films by following police officers who are unable to solve the mystery and capture the killer. This steeps his work in a deep sense of nihilism as the bad guys win, or his characters are left feeling hollow despite their success. Happy endings are not for Fincher, exemplified by his second feature, Se7en, which is arguably still his greatest work.
The 1995 film follows two detectives, the wizened Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and the rookie Mills (Brad Pitt), who are confronted with a serial killer. His methodology: each murder is based around one of the seven deadly sins. For gluttony, a man is forced to eat until his stomach bursts. For lust, a man is forced to have sex with a sex worker using a bladed dildo. And the list goes on.
Importantly, these “murders” are performed by other victims, as coerced by the serial killer, John Doe (Kevin Spacey). He is always one step ahead of Somerset and Mills as they try to make sense of his violence and predict his next move. Unfortunately, despite their valiant efforts and detective work, justice does not prevail because John Doe’s plan is ultimately completed by the film’s end. The good guys do not win.
Nihilism is a philosophical concept defined as the rejection of all religious and moral principles and the belief that life is meaningless. Fincher applies such a philosophy in multiple ways, the first being with John Doe’s motive. The seven deadly sins are a set of vices in the Christian faith that believers are supposed to avoid at all costs so they can gain access to heaven. While he is punishing those who represent his perceived depravity of society, he himself is also committing sins, which damns him in the eyes of God. In committing murders themed around these vices, Doe is rejecting religions and moral principles.
But much of the film’s nihilism is based on the idea that life is bleak and meaningless, starting with its setting. The city is unnamed, covered in gray skies and a constant deluge of rain. By placing the film in an unspecified city, it floats through time. There are no markers of a specific place during the 1990s. It is instead a city plagued by the ever-present issues of violence and exhausted detectives. This place is steeped in hopelessness and pervading misery, which is confirmed by Detective Somerset when he says, “I just don’t think I can continue to live in a place that embraces and nurtures apathy as if it was virtue.”
In his series of murders, John Doe also depicts nihilism in his disregard for human life, including his own. His killings are deliberate punishments to those he declares unfit to live, from a model to an overweight man to a defense attorney. Their deaths are not quick but entail hours of suffering, seen especially for the sin of sloth, where a pedophile is bound to a bed for a year, kept alive by Doe as his body and mind slowly deteriorate. While these murders are meant to give Doe meaning, the deliberate acts of cruelty against both himself and others show his indifference towards the world.
The ending of Se7en is the culmination of Fincher’s nihilism and the ultimate destruction of both good and evil. John Doe claims the rest of the bodies are hidden in a field in the middle of nowhere. Yet, he has a plan: he will convince Mills to kill him as an act of wrath when Doe reveals he committed an act of envy via the delivery of Mills’ wife’s severed head. In a fit of rage and despair, Mills does in fact shoot John Doe, fulfilling the killer’s plan. Evil is conquered with Doe’s death at the price of police integrity. The concept of justice is ripped apart, showcasing that humanity’s attempts at protecting themselves is futile.
In John Doe’s murder at the hands of Mills, it becomes apparent that this entire scenario was utterly inevitable. Every murder, every move is calculated to lead to a particular outcome. John Doe has always had the upper hand. There was no winning for the assumed good guys. Despite the murder of John Doe, there is no happy or remotely positive ending; the only guaranteed outcome is trauma. Justice has been served, yes, but at the cost of Mills’ marriage and his career. While Somerset tries to be the voice of reason to ensure some semblance of order, John Doe is revealed to be a true agent of chaos.
The film’s prevalent hopelessness, rejection of justice, and nihilistic perspective make the thriller more relevant than ever twenty-five years later. In a time when it seems like there is no end in sight for our collective misery, Se7en is oddly comforting in its embrace of nihilism. Fincher does not try to sugar coat life, choosing instead to depict the harsh cruelty of humanity and the cycle of violence it perpetuates.