John Doe’s apartment? As in the home of creepy, pervy Kevin Spacey from Se7en? Go ahead. Issue a worldwide “weirdo alert.” Sound the alarms, but I can’t help myself. David Fincher’s 1995 thriller still does a number on me to this day — just in a “feel good” kind of way. Good thing that doesn’t sound even creepier.
Among Se7en’s numerous successes is its ability to reprimand the viewer’s obsession with an overwhelming backlash of the morbid. Writer Andrew Kevin Walker achieves this in grim fashion and in less subtler ways throughout, but Se7en also pulls in the viewer with its killer’s cloudy cult of personality in “John Doe.” When detectives David Mills (Brad Pitt) and William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) find Doe’s residence through a paper trail of library loans — works from the Marquis de Sade and Dante, naturally — it’s a drab apartment that sits somewhere in between slum and lower-tier hotel. It’s a dump, but the downpour from ajar windows and baby cries across dank hallways are par for the course in the urban rectum of Se7en’s nameless, rainy metropolis.
From the moment Det. Mills kicks Doe’s door in, taking out at least four separate locks, cinematographer Darius Khondji pulls his camera back into the recesses of the apartment, half recoiling from Mills’ foolhardy aggression, half working his way in, curious about what’s inside. After all, seeing what this weirdo calls home is what we all secretly want to see, no matter how disturbing it might be. Apart from the occasional dimmed lamp fixtures and a violently red neon cross in the bedroom, Doe’s apartment has virtually no light whatsoever. Then again, what’s to see outside anyway? More rain? With flashlights drawn, Mills and Somerset explore the apartment’s dark recesses, the former at a much quicker pace than the latter. It’s not that Somerset, on the cusp of retirement, is more afraid than Mills; he’s just more cautious, and while the peculiar nature of a “seven deadly sins” serial murderer is a career first, he’s going to take his time.
On Doe’s wall hang totems of his murders, both committed and intended: “Sloth” and Victor’s severed hand; souvenir cans of tomato sauce from “gluttony”; the eventual prostitute victim of “lust.” The artifacts are all neatly arranged in separate display boxes, like trophies for some sick accomplishment, but apart from this disturbing glimpse of self achievement, Doe’s apartment is a crash course on asceticism. There are no framed paintings, no knick-knacks on the shelves. Any decorations are solely of a Christian demeanor — drab, angelic statues and lots and lots of crucifixes. Desk drawers are lined with empty aspirin bottles, rosaries, the Good Book of course, vials of holy water, and even half a pair of dentures. In the corner sits a tool chest, with various sanders, chisels, and blades lining its innards. The crimson glow of the bedroom cross belies a second one along with dozens of smaller pewter crucifixes and sleeping accommodations with all the frills of a prison cell.
I’m not a fan of the blood-stained button-up Spacey later sports, but we know John Doe’s usually a pretty clean guy. Every article of clothing lines his closets with the same plastic coverings, as if his entire wardrobe had just come back freshly-pressed from the dry cleaner. As Mills makes his way to Doe’s bathroom, more of that sharp red light bleeds out from under the door. Somerset, ever cautious, draws his weapon. There is no threat, apart from the uncharacteristically messy floor, but Doe has turned his bathroom into a makeshift dark room. Like the living room walls, photos from his exploits hang overhead and are surprisingly Godardian in their black and white compositions. It’s when Mills looks down at the tub that Se7en delivers another revelation: John Doe was, in Mills’ words, the “f*cking photographer in front of the f*ckign stairs.” Not a moment before, they had him, and they let him go. Beneath the surface of the developer fluid, Doe’s images show a perfect encapsulation of Mills and Somserset’s dynamic. Mills shouts in the foreground, eager to chase off his then unknown suspect. Somserset stands in the background, thinking, observing, remarking on how it’s impressive to see a man feed of his emotions. That’s Somerset to a tee, and with Freeman’s restrained delivery, it’s a perfect fit.
The pair bring on a sketch artist and accompanying forensics team to check for prints but to Mills’ disbelief, they don’t find any. The ludicrous development is an extension of Se7en’s artful credits, fleshing out why on earth a man would willingly shave skin from his fingertips. No ID. The images in Kyle Cooper’s masterful credit sequence — equal parts enrapturing and disturbing over a Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” remix — all come to a head here. The cutting of the fingertips, the developing of a photograph, and of course, the painstaking detail Doe puts into his hundreds of notebooks. While Mills dashes to and fro, checking in with team members, chasing after phone calls, the always reserved Somerset appropriately kicks back in Doe’s study. The killer’s life, “poured out on the page,” lines shelf after shelf in over 2,000 notebook by Somerset’s estimation. It would take two months to read through all of them, even with a team of fifty men pouring through Doe’s daily entries and laminated photographs of gruesome images. Doe is just a man, albeit one driven to authorship from his sheer disgust at this world of sin, moved to sickness by the “banality” of everyday life.
Doe eventually calls his own apartment to taunt our two detectives, and Se7en unfolds like the superb thriller it is, with clues and unsettling intrigue. But for five minutes, Fincher lets the imagery and Howard Shore’s groaning low strings do all the talking. John Doe’s apartment is as much a testament to the man’s demented zealotry as it is our own fascination with his insanity; that’s one of Se7en’s greatest strengths. It shows the depths of dedication and lunacy that Cooper’s opening titles first taunt us with. It calls out our CSI: NY serial fascinations with the macabre, suggesting some culpability on the part of the passive viewer. Se7en’s gut-punch climax is as hard and rigid a fulfillment as any to Mills’ career choice. You take this path, you face the risks that come with it. But it’s the snapshots — both literal and cinematic — that first take us there. They begin in the first five minutes and play out in Doe’s den of evil, and I love Se7en for so deliberately showing the strings behind the horror. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go get my head checked.