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  • Joseph Morganti

The Antagonists of SE7EN: An Analysis

No matter the story, there’s a connection and opposition between a protagonist and an antagonist. Thrillers are the best case for the protagonist and antagonist dynamic, with 1995’s Se7en being one of the most popular films in the genre. Led by iconic filmmaker David Fincher, Se7en is a daring and dark psychological crime story starring Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Spacey, and Gwyneth Paltrow.


The film tells the story of retiring and demoralized Detective William Somerset (Freeman), who partners with young Detective David Mills (Pitt) to hunt a serial killer (Spacey) who uses the seven deadly sins as his motives. Memes and online fame aside, Se7en still remains a popular film thanks to the competent filmmaking of David Fincher, the setting, and various entrenched themes.

Still from 'Se7en'. Photo credit: IMDb


John Doe


When analyzing the antagonists of Se7en, the most obvious place to begin is with the John Doe character. On the surface, John Doe is a killer bowed on viciously murdering those who've committed the seven deadly sins and getting recognition for a world he feels lacks sympathy or care.


The character follows the traditional sociopathic tendencies of a serial killer, targeting his victims and planning their deaths while stalking them leading up to their death. Doe gathers as much information as possible before getting caught or exposed, torturing his victims according to the symbolic fashion connected with the deadly sin attributed to the victim.


Like so many psychological thrillers, Doe is painted as a genuinely deranged individual with a high level of intellect. His insanity is based on his actions and obsession (clearly) but does little to hinder his ability to get caught or discovered. The character appears comfortable and joyful while toying with the detectives.


In my opinion, the most captivating way to analyze Doe is to compare him to the other characters in the film. Doe is jealous of Mills—hence the ending—but is oddly similar to Somerset. Both are loners, living in a hellscape of a city, whose search for meaning puts them on opposite ends of the spectrum; one who is a sinner (Doe) and the other who attempts virtue (Somerset).


Unnamed Hellscape of a City


The antagonism of the film works so well thanks to the hellscape of the city it’s set in. The unnamed city has a similar appearance to Batman’s Gotham City, one riddled with crime with no real hope in sight. Nearing his retirement, Somerset has seen the worst of crimes and dreams of the day he can get out of the city into a reclusive environment.


Somerset’s depression or nihilism is primarily because of his environment and the lack of apathy the city has toward helping people. From Somerset's viewpoint, there’s no point in trying to find good in the city. It’s a bleak outlook on their situation, but one we can understand because of Somerset's age and profession.


Though that nihilism has led to a personal depression and hope of retirement with Somerset, those similar feelings led to the antagonist of John Doe. Doe feels a similar hatred toward the city, claiming it to be a part of its corruption and a need to cleanse it of its sins. It makes for a fascinating dive into how similar situations can cause two vastly different outcomes for characters.


Loneliness


Loneliness is a primary factor behind Se7en. Even Mills' character, someone new to the job and city, only has his wife as emotional and loving support. Somerset has nothing, but the prospect of retirement, while we assume from the start that the serial killer they’re after is in a deep state of loneliness.


Besides their respective loneliness, Doe and Somerset are partnerless and devoted to their work. For example, we don’t see Somerset have or act in a friendly manner toward anyone else, and he appears very hesitant to go over to Mills for dinner. It’s a constant bout of remaining alone because it either feels ordinary or out of fear.


Story Impact


The antagonistic force of Se7en isn’t just to have good characters. It plays a fundamental role in the script's development, especially with the detectives. We see Somerset’s desperation for getting out of his work; Mills is eager to get his family and life started, while Doe is completely gone mentally yet in a similar setting.


For example, Somerset’s similarities to Doe help the two catch the killer when they find the books Doe checked out at the library. Even during the driving scenes near the end, Somerset appears to be the only one who can keep a conversation with Doe, so much so that it angers Doe.


Sins vs. Virtues


The deepest part of the story comes down to sins vs. virtues. In his viewpoint, Doe acts out in sin to make a deranged statement about the city's current state and, in a broader sense, the world. Somerset takes a different approach, someone who has dedicated his life to rid the city of crime, only for it to overcome him in his later years. Then you have Mills; someone caught in the middle who wants nothing more than a stable job for his wife and future.

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