Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is counting the days until he retires. The city where he lives is seedy and grim, a bleak world of dive bars and neon lights and grimy, half-lit interiors. Scoundrels and good-for-nothings prowl the back alleys while ordinary folk push past each other in the rain, their faces hidden by umbrellas. Nobody is your friend here. You could die in one of these alleys and nobody would care. It’s this that has eroded Somerset’s hope more than the death he’s seen. He pines for a past in which people looked out for one another. As he tells his young, idealistic new partner Mills (Brad Pitt), the police advise that women being sexually assaulted shout ‘fire!’, not ‘help!’, so that people will actually respond. “That’s fucked up,” says Mills.
There’s a lot of fucked up stuff in this film, in this world. A man is found dead having been hog-tied and made to eat canned spaghetti until he burst. Another, a rich lawyer, is forced at gunpoint to gouge out a pound of his own flesh with a knife, then murdered anyway. Somerset sees before anyone else that the motives behind these killings are biblical. Gluttony. Greed. He warns his sergeant to expect five more inspired by the rest of the deadly sins.
Somerset’s partnership with Mills is classic Hollywood stuff: the two meet at the beginning of the film and despite differing in age, outlook and temper eventually grow into a functioning unit, if not a brotherly one. Somerset, although caring, thoughtful and self-possessed, is disillusioned by the apathy of the people around him. As for Mills, he may be cocky and hot-tempered but he refuses to give up on the good in people. (It’s telling that while Mills loves his wife Tracey (Gwyneth Paltrow) and their three dogs dearly, Somerset is alone having never married or had kids.) Their differences boil over one night over drinks, where Somerset moans that people just want to “eat cheeseburgers, play the lotto and watch television” and lambasts Mills for thinking otherwise. Mills stands his ground. “I don’t think you’re quitting because you believe these things you say. I think you want to believe them because you’re quitting,” he says.
It’s difficult to see what this film is ‘about’. It reaches high at times with occasional commentary on society’s apathy and the pervasiveness of sin in the world, but ultimately doesn’t say much about either. The characters don’t undergo any real changes or shifts in perception. Nor are they developed enough for us to truly connect with them. Mills’ arc in particular ends tragically although doesn’t quite hit any emotional notes since I felt I barely knew him anyway. Tracey’s character is even emptier. There are hints at characterisation in the moments she confides in Somerset, particularly about hating the city they live in, but otherwise she is a prop to be used as leverage over Mills in the film’s climax, which, to be fair, is excellent.
But then maybe that’s the point. Maybe we’re not supposed to connect with the characters and are meant to stay apathetic ourselves, just like all the other people around them. Perhaps rather than empathise with Somerset, we’re supposed to join the crowd of people he’s lamenting. It might be letting the screenwriter off too easily to chalk up underdeveloped characters to serving the apathy theme, but it’s a tempting idea.
Nor do we ever truly feel the weight of the murderer’s convictions. The “seven deadly sins” theme, despite being the premise of the entire film, seems shoehorned in. What purpose this serves I’m not sure. It’s apparent early on that these are not senseless killings but the enactment of some deranged prophecy. The killer, named John Doe in the movie, sees himself as a martyr carrying out God’s will, triggering a revolution, curing society of its ills. But like most religious fanatics he just comes off as crazy. Mills in particular is quick to dismiss him as such. Rather than separate the message from the man, the film relegates everything about the murders to the realm of lunacy, including the ideas motivating them. This is not a deft handling of such heavy subject matter. The fact that John Doe mercilessly tortures the greedy and gluttinous doesn’t mean those people are without fault.
None of this is to say the film is bad. It’s actually hugely enjoyable and draws some powerful performances from Freeman, Pitt and the guy who plays the murderer (it’s better if it’s a surprise). But I felt the film reached a bit too high, that it was built around the heavy themes of apathy and sin without really knowing what to do with them. Though the ending is intense, I felt more character development would have made it hit harder. I didn’t know or care enough about anyone to be moved by what happens. But again, maybe that’s the point. It’s as Somerset feels, we see each other but we don’t connect. Because we don’t connect, we don’t care.