An effective account of telling a story about the dangers of the stories we tell.
Director David Fincher and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker delivered a taut and disturbing thriller back in 1995. Detailing the exploits of John Doe (Kevin Spacey), a serial killer bent on teaching humanity the errors of its way, se7en frightened the Hell out of many and inspired even more to repeat its brash and dark narrative. While studio heads begged to reverse course on the disturbing and depressing ending, both creatives instinctively knew the result of a decision based on fear:
A broken and meaningless story.
se7en is a Tragedy; a classic example of the failure to reach the Story Goal combined with a Story Judgment of Bad. As Protagonist, hot-head David Mills (Brad Pitt) pursues a course of action aimed at stopping John Doe before the killer can finish killing by way of the infamous Seven Deadly Sins from the Bible (Story Continuum of Spacetime). When Mills unwittingly becomes Doe's final victim—and "becomes wrath—he completes the missionary work began by the murderer. This Story Consequence of Becoming seals the Story Outcome in Failure.
As for the Author's Judgment on the efforts to stop Doe, Somerset's giving into extreme anger—his participation in the final Sin—motivates and inspires Mills to go through with fulfilling Doe's mission. That slap across the face represents a Changed Main Character Resolve, reinforcing Mills' Steadfast Influence Character Resolve. While perhaps unavoidable concerning the circumstances, the Author judges this reaction a Bad thing.
The Main Character's emotional state offers an Author the most obvious way to communicate this Judgment. As a representative of the Audience's first-person perspective into the narrative, the Main Character's ability or inability to resolve their problems provides a clear and straightforward way to deliver meaning.
Somerset begins the story on the eve of retirement, and nothing—and nobody—is going to stand in the way of his departure. His Main Character Problem of Temptation stands at the center of conflict from his perspective. Dramatica defines Temptation as the urge to embrace immediate benefits despite possible consequences. Regardless of what he sees of Doe's efforts, the urge to adopt retirement and take the easy way out of a world—or Universe—he deems unlivable overtakes his every move.
Unfortunately, the following events shift Somerset's perspective to align with David's, and at the end our Main Character informs his boss that "he will be around." Somerset concludes the piece by defining both the Main Character Solution of Conscience and the Story Judgment of Bad in his final monologue:
Ernest Hemingway once wrote: "The world is a fine place, and worth saving." I believe in the second part.'
Dramatica defines Conscience as forgoing an immediate benefit because of future consequences. "Worth saving" = Main Character Solution of Conscience and reinforces the Main Character Resolve of Changed. "I believe in the second part" = Story Judgment of Bad. The world is not a fine place…
A Mentorship That Turns On Itself
The Relationship Story Throughline that develops between Mills and Somerset sits somewhere along the lines of a classic mentorship. With its Domain set in Psychology and a Relationship Story Concern of Becoming, the perspective of conflict found within their bond reinforces the transformative process inherent in polar opposites:
You know…there's not going to be a happy ending to this. It's not possible.
If we get him, I'll be happy enough.
No. Face it now. Stop thinking it's good versus evil.
"there's not going to be a happy ending" indicates a Main Character Concern of Future. "If we get him, I'll be happy enough" presents the Influence Character Concern of Subconscious. This scene opens up with a classic confrontation between opposing perspectives.
The conflict and development of character continues:
If it wasn't one thing, if that's what you mean. It's just…I can't live anymore where ignorance is embraced and nurtured as if it were a virtue.
And, you're so much better than everyone, right?
Wrong. I sympathize completely. Apathy is a solution. In a lot of ways, it's easier to lose yourself in drugs than it is to cope with life. Easier to steal something than to earn it. Easier to beat a child than to raise it, because it takes so much work to love. To care.
Apathy as a solution? This line shines as a clear indicator of the Main Character Problem of Temptation developing into the Main Character Issue of Choice--choosing to look the other way to survive. Somerset stands on shaky ground.
No. I'm not. I'm talking about everyday life here. If you want to survive, you can't afford to be this naive.
Mills' Influence Character Concern of Dream of being "naive"—of a desired future that requires unexpected developments— challenges Somerset's Choice. Telling that it is Somerset who brings this point up, not Mills.
Somerset is losing.
And you're going to make a difference?
Yeah, "naive" as that may sound. And, I don't think you quit because you believe the things you're saying. I think you want to believe them, because you quit. You want me to agree with you: "Yeah, you're right, Somerset. This is fucked. Let's go live in a fucking log cabin." Well, I don't agree with you. I can't afford to. I'm staying.
Mills gets up, throws some money on the table.
Thanks for the beer.
Mills leaves, other patrons watching him.
Somerset takes out a cigarette and goes to light it. It won't light. When it finally does, Somerset's and is trembling.
And with this Relationship Story Signpost 3 in Becoming, Somerset begins the downhill slope towards his final Resolution moment.
Refining Meaning and Tricking the Audience
Interestingly enough, the script dated November 1, 1994, finds Somerset the one who pulls the trigger on Doe before turning the gun on himself.
As disastrous as changing the final ending would have have been, keeping this first conclusion breaks all kinds of narrative integrity. Sure, it maintains the Story Outcome of Failure and the Story Judgment of Bad—but it leaves out any indication of the Main Character Solution of Conscience.
The ending as written delivers shock value similar to the broken conclusion found in Jordan Peele's masterful thriller Get Out. The end as filmed presents a sophisticated and meaningful narrative without tricking the Audience.
A Morality Play
John Doe seeks to rid the world of depravity. Naturally, many writers look to Morality—of doing what is best for others—something positive and beneficial to solve problems. Here, in se7en, we witness the dark and destructive side of thinking of others:
I won't deny my personal desire to turn each sin against the sinner. I only took their sins to logical conclusions.
You killed innocent people to get your rocks off. That's all.
Innocent? Is that supposed to be funny? Look at the people I killed. An obese man, a disgusting man who could barely stand up. If you saw him on the street, you'd point him out to your friends, so they could join you in mocking him. If you saw him while you were eating, you wouldn't finish your meal. After him I picked the lawyer. And, you both must have been secretly thanking me for that one. This was a man who dedicated his life to making money by lying with every breath he could muster…to keep rapists and murderers on the streets.
se7en inspired a shift in narrative, not because of shock value or grotesque set pieces, but rather out of its exploration of the downside of a text—the Bible—often used for good. By flipping the script on the mentorship relationship that existed for centuries, Fincher and Walker challenged cultural assumptions regarding the usefulness of morality.
They redefined the morality play.