Dark and disturbing, this investigative thriller delves into the life of two homicide detectives, as they desperately hunt for a serial killer who justifies his crimes as absolution for the world's ignorance of the Seven Deadly Sins.
This horrifying tale takes us from the tortured remains of one victim to the next as the sociopath, labelled "John Doe" sermonizes to Detectives Sommerset and Mills -- one sin at a time. The sin of Gluttony comes first and the murderer's terrible capacity is graphically demonstrated in the dark and subdued tones characteristic of film noir.
The seasoned and cultured but jaded Sommerset researches the Seven Deadly Sins in an effort to understand the killer's modus operandi while the bright but green and impulsive Detective Mills scoffs at his efforts to get inside the mind of a killer. How will the investigation unfold? Will the team of detectives successfully identify and capture the psychopath? How will their personal lives be impacted by the investigation and its fallout?
This spine-chilling tale is set against the backdrop of an unidentified city of constant rain and urban decay, Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is preparing to retire and leave the horrors of the city. Before he retires, he is partnered with Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), a cocky, young and short-tempered cop from Springfield, a comparatively small town.
The two investigate the murder of a highly obese man (Bob Mack) who was fed spaghetti until a kick to his stomach burst him open. Somerset investigates the murder while Mills is given the murder case of Defense Attorney Eli Gould (Gene Borkan), with GREED written in Gould's blood on the floor. Gould was forced to carve a pound of flesh off of his body, and subsequently bled to death.
The police captain gives Somerset an evidence container with three slivers of a plastic-like material found in the stomach of the obese man; which he was forced to consume along with the spaghetti. Going to the victim's house, Somerset finds three groove marks in front of the refrigerator and finds that the plastic-like slivers fit into them perfectly. Knowing this resulted from the refrigerator being moved, Somerset looks behind it. He finds the word GLUTTONY written behind the fridge in grease, along with a note containing a quote from Milton's Paradise Lost.
Somerset theorizes that a serial killer is basing his crimes on the Seven Deadly Sins, with five more to go. To give Mills and Somerset a chance to get along with each other, Mills's wife, Tracy Mills (Gwyneth Paltrow) invites Somerset over for dinner. While they are eating, a train passes by on the track nearby, making the building and all its contents and inhabitants tremble: the couple mention that that's why the realtor was so nervous for them to see the apartment quickly.
After Tracy goes to bed, Mills and Somerset examine case evidence from the two scenes. They find a picture of Gould's wife with blood painted around the eyes. Realizing that this means she is supposed to spot something about the murder scene that nobody else would, the detectives have a distraught Mrs. Gould (Julie Araskog) look at the pictures in a safe house and she notices an abstract painting that is upside down. Brushing powder on the wall behind the painting, Somerset finds fingerprints outlining the words "Help Me."
After running the fingerprints through AFIS, the prints are traced a day later to a pedophile named Victor (Michael Reid MacKay), who escaped conviction for the rape of a minor due to the efforts of his lawyer: Eli Gould, the GREED victim. SWAT and the detectives raid his apartment to find Victor to be the SLOTH victim, having been bound to his bed for one year to the day, as evidenced by pictures at the scene; one taken every day from the day he is discovered.
Remarkably, he is still alive but suffering from severe physical and mental deterioration. His hand was cut off and pushed onto the wall behind the painting to leave the prints. Mills and Somerset ask to interrogate Victor in the hospital, but the doctor says that he's chewed off his tongue and that "his brain is mush" from the ordeal.
That evening, Tracy calls Somerset and requests that he meet with her. The next morning, Somerset meets Tracy in a diner where she tells him how miserable she is in "the city." At Somerset's urging, Tracy reveals the truth of her request to meet: she is pregnant, afraid of raising a child where they now live and afraid of telling David.
Somerset advises her to tell her husband only if she decides to have it, and he sets himself as an example: he insisted his partner have an abortion, that he finally convinced her, and now he is remorseful.
Later that day, and using a contact in the FBI, Somerset gets a library list of people who have borrowed books related to the Seven Deadly Sins. The list leads the detectives to a man named John Doe (Kevin Spacey), whose apartment they visit soon after. Doe, his face hidden, sees them as he comes home, pulls out a gun and begins shooting. After a long chase, Doe hits Mills with a tire iron, keeps him subdued at gunpoint, but lets him live and suddenly flees.
While examining Doe's apartment (after bribing a resident to claim she called the detectives about Doe) they find notebooks of his thoughts, trophies of the crimes and a picture of Mills fighting off Doe, who, at the time, was posing as a press photographer. John Doe calls the apartment and congratulates the detectives on them finding him and apologizes for hitting Mills.
Their actions, he says, have caused him to change his plans. Then he hangs up. They also find a photo of a young woman, a prostitute (Cat Mueller), who they believe may be the next victim. A receipt leads them to a S&M leather shop where Doe placed an order for a sexual device. The girl is soon found dead in a room with LUST written on the door.
Also found in the room is a visibly shaken man (Leland Orser) forced by Doe at gunpoint to wear and use the device, a large strap-on dildo with a blade attachment, to rape and kill the girl. The owner of the place, Wild Billy (Martin Serene) can give no clue to the physical aspect or the briefcase John Doe used, as there every customer used to carry special clothes or equipment.
The next morning, a model (Heidi Schanz) is found dead with PRIDE written on the crime scene. Her nose has been cut off ("to spite her face") upon which Doe gave her the choice of suicide by sleeping pills or calling for help and living scarred. She chose the former, and swallowed the pills.
As the detectives return to the police headquarters, John Doe (Kevin Spacey) walks up to them, his hands bleeding (he removed the skin from his fingers to avoid identification) and gives himself up. He talks to his lawyer (Richard Schiff) and agrees that if he can take Somerset and Mills to two more bodies, he will confess to all the murders. Wanting a confession, the detectives agree.
Somerset and Mills both have microphones taped to their chests so the rest of the task force can monitor their conversation with Doe. During the prep, Mills tries to tell Somerset about a concern he has with Tracy, but can't bring himself to talk fully about it.
As the three travel to the desert outskirts of the city in a car, they are trailed by a police helicopter for security (flown by John Santin and James Deeth). Doe explains his rationale behind the murders as a way of showing people what the world is, as well as punishing the wicked. He goes on to say he will be remembered and admired for what he has done, having been "chosen" to do so.
As Doe speaks, the disgusted Mills is driven to rage, and screams at Doe while Somerset remains calm. Once they reach the outskirts, Doe directs them to a specific spot near some power cable towers. The detectives walk Doe out to an open spot. After a few moments, a van appears and Somerset stops it several hundred yards away, leaving Mills behind to cover Doe.
The driver (Richmond Arquette) claims someone paid him $500 to deliver a box to Mills at this place at exactly 7 o'clock. As Somerset opens the box, he recoils in horror from what he sees inside. As he races back to Mills and desperately yells for him to throw his gun away, Doe states to Mills that he admires Mills's life, to the point of being envious of his wife and the love they share.
He states that he tried to "play husband" with Tracy that day but it didn't work out and he took a souvenir instead: "her pretty head." It was Doe's plan that Mills will kill him, as Doe himself was guilty of ENVY, as he became jealous of Mills's simpler life. He also reveals to Mills that Tracy was pregnant, and that she begged to be kept alive for the child's sake. Mills, despite the pleading of Somerset, is so devastated by his wife's death and the knowledge that she was pregnant, that he empties his gun into Doe. In killing Doe in vengeance, Mills comes to embody the sin of WRATH, completing Doe's "masterpiece."
After a catatonic Mills is taken away, their captain tells Somerset that they'll "take care of Mills," knowing the jury will condemn him. Somerset answers, "Whatever he needs." He also tells his captain that he will be "around;" implying that he will be staying on the force. As the camera pans out from the desert, the movie ends with Somerset quoting Ernest Hemingway: "'The world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part."
Audio/Video Mismatch When Det. Somerset knocks on the door of the suspect, the sound of the knocking doesn't match the movements of his hand.
Character Error Somerset states in the film that there are "7 cardinal virtues, and 7 deadly sins". It is generally more accepted, and stated by Saint Thomas Aquinas, that there are only 4 cardinal virtues, the other 3 virtues being theological.
Character Error At about the end of the library scene, when Somerset is folding up Dante Alighieri's inferno printout, a mistake in the roman numerals can be seen. The lustful, following V. The greedy, should be listed as the 6th (VI) and the gluttonous as the 7th (VII) on the list. However, they're listed as the 7th (VII) and as the 6th (VI) respectively.
Continuity Mills gets out of a bed with only a quilted mattress cover. He puts on his shirt and tie and walks back to the bed which now has a sheet on it.
Continuity The phone on Detective Mills' desk changes several times when he enters his new office.
Continuity When Somerset is in the taxi on the way to the library, he is wearing a striped shirt under his overcoat. When he gets to the library and is chatting with the security guards he is wearing just a solid white shirt.
Continuity On the drive back from the Gluttony victim, the car has two different kinds of windshield wiper: one that goes side to side, and one that goes up and down.
Continuity The layout of John Doe's apartment conflicts with the hallway of the building. In the outside hallway, there is a window looking onto the building next door. Inside the apartment, there are rooms where the window would be.
Continuity The level of the wine glasses when Somerset is over for dinner changes. When the camera is on the Mills, Mrs. Mills glass is higher than Somerset's glass. When the camera is on Somerset, the levels are both lower and equal.
Continuity When Somerset is in the greed victim's office dusting the wall for prints behind the painting, he does so with his left hand. However, the close-up shot of the hand doing the dusting is clearly a right hand.
Continuity When Dective Mills shoots John after the first shot the slide locks back indicating the gun is empty, then he begins shooting again but doesn't reload or cycle the slide.
Crew/Equipment Visible At the end of the scene where both witnesses of the "Lust" crime scene are interrogated, there is a slow track from one interrogation room to the other. In the tracking shot, you can see the camera dolly reflection at the bottom of the two-way mirror.
Factual Mistake When Somerset returns to the Gluttony crime scene, he uses his pocket-knife to cut the police tape which is securing the door. This tape is on the inside of the door, which is pointless (as it is supposed to be seen by people, to warn them away from the crime scene) and impossible, unless the police taped up the door and then climbed out of the windows.
Factual Mistake When Somerset is in the library making copies, a plan of Dante Alighieri's Purgatory comes out of the copy machine, but the label at the bottom of the page identifies it as Dante's Inferno.
Revealing Mistakes When the police are inspecting the body of the "lust" victim, you can see her blinking at the beginning of the scene.
Revealing Mistakes As Mills and Somerset leave the Captain's office after submitting the report on their first job together, Somerset walks across the screen to leave the room. In the bottom-left side of the screen, the red marker tape he is standing on is clearly visible in the shot.
Revealing Mistakes Freeze-framing the film on the legible portions of John Doe's hand-written journal (while Somerset is turning pages) reveals one page identical to the preceding one.
Revealing Mistakes When Detective David Mills is chasing the suspected murderer (who is now on the roof top in between buildings), he fires shots at the Detective in the building. Nearby pigeons can be seen only a few feet away and do not fly off when the shots are fired.
Revealing Mistakes The dead gluttony victim can be seen breathing.
Revealing Mistakes While it is raining on the car, the people on the street are not using umbrellas or other devices to shield themselves from rain.
All of John Doe's books were real books, written for the film. They took two months to complete and cost $15,000. According to Somerset, two months is also the time it would take the police to read all the books.
As preparation for his traumatic scene in the interrogation room, Leland Orser would breathe in and out very rapidly so that his body would be overly saturated with oxygen, giving him the ability to hyperventilate. He also did not sleep for a few days to achieve his character's disoriented look.
While filming the scene where Mills chases John Doe in the rain, Brad Pitt fell and his arm went through a car windscreen, requiring surgery. This accident was worked into the script of the film. Ironically, the original script did call for Pitt's Det. Mills character to be injured during this sequence--but to something other than his hand.
Denzel Washington turned down the part that went to Brad Pitt, telling Entertainment Weekly that the film was too "dark and evil." Washington later regretted his decision upon seeing a screening.
New Line executives originally balked at the film's ending, but Brad Pitt refused to make the film if the ending were changed.
All the building numbers in the opening scene start with 7. The climactic delivery was scheduled for 7pm.
Gwyneth Paltrow was David Fincher's first choice for the part of Brad Pitt's wife, having impressed him with her work in Flesh and Bone (1993). Paltrow was initially not interested, so Fincher had to ask her then boyfriend - Brad Pitt - to get her to come in and meet with him.
There's a line in which Mills names motives that killers give; one of them is 'Jodie Foster told me to do it.' He is referring to John Hinckley Jr., a man that was obsessed with Jodie Foster and attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan to impress her. The other that Mills says is "My dog told me to do it.", a reference to David Berkowitz, AKA, the "Son of Sam", a serial killer who terrorized the New York City area in the summers of 1976 and 1977 and claimed that his neighbor's dog was possessed and told him to commit murder.
Originally, Morgan Freeman drew his pistol with his finger on the trigger. Police officers that were on the set as technical advisors quickly corrected him, as that is not correct police procedure.
This was voted the eighth scariest film of all time by Entertainment Weekly.
During pre-production, Al Pacino was considered for the Somerset role, but he decided to do City Hall (1996).
When looking for the part of Victor, David Fincher stated that he wanted to find someone who was incredibly skinny, around 90 lbs. Michael Reid MacKay auditioned, and at the time weighed 96 lbs. Fincher gave him the part and jokingly told him to lose some more weight. Much to his surprise, MacKay turned up to filming having lost another 6 lbs.
Brad Pitt earned $7 million for this film.
The word "fuck" and its derivatives are said a discernible 74 times throughout the movie, mostly by Brad Pitt.
The "Platinum Series" DVD of Se7en by New Line is mastered from a new HDTV transfer which was made directly from the camera negative. This required that the whole film had to be re-graded digitally, applying color and contrast correction to every shot under the director's supervision. The resulting HDTV master is now the official master of the film. The digital corrections are quite extensive in some shots as the DVD supplements demonstrate in detail.
Andrew Kevin Walker had enormous difficulty getting a studio to buy the rights to his script because he was a complete unknown in Hollywood. Allegedly, he put together a list of agents that represented writers that work in the crime and thriller genres, and just called each one up until he got a positive response.
The box full of photographs at the "Sloth" scene has written on the side "To the World, from Me."
This was regarded as the first "A" production for New Line Cinema, proving that they could attract "A-list" directors and cast.
The original script had a strange, dwarf-like woman as part of the forensics team, appearing in every one of the "cleanups" after a murder and hurling foul language and epithets at Somerset and Mills.
David Cronenberg was offered a chance to direct this but he turned it down.
The film was the subject of a lawsuit brought by a photographer whose work was used in the background of John Doe's apartment. The case was decided in the filmmakers' favor. Sandoval v. New Line Cinema Corp., 973 F.Supp. 409, 412-414 (S.D.N.Y 1997).
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