Great Scene: “Se7en”
One of the most darkly compelling endings in recent movie history.
When a movie builds to the climactic face-off between Protagonist and Nemesis, I call that the Final Struggle. Typically it’s a case of fists-versus-fists or guns-versus-guns. But the movie Se7en (1995), written by Andrew Kevin Walker, provides an unorthodox twist — befitting a movie with so many plot surprises: The Final Struggle takes place largely within the Protagonist, a battle between will and hatred, logic and the desire for revenge.
Young Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) and veteran Detective Lt. William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) have escorted serial murder suspect John Doe (Kevin Spacey) to a remote desert location. From nowhere, a van rolls up. Somerset heads off to stop the van. The driver emerges, there to deliver a box. And that’s where this scene begins:
EXT. DESERT, INDUSTRIAL ROAD -- EARLY EVENINGSomerset shoves the deliveryman.SOMERSET
Go. Run!The deliveryman gladly starts running down the
industrial road, not looking back.Somerset turns. He walks, kneels in front of the
package, reholstering his gun, talking into his
I sent the delivery guy out
on foot. Have him picked up.
He's headed west.Somerset pulls his switchblade, clicks it open.SOMERSET
I'm opening the package now.He cuts across the top of the box, hands shaking,
cuts quickly.He fumbles with the thick tape, ripping it.He pulls the box open, pulls at some bubble-wrap
inside.INT. POLICE HELICOPTER -- EARLY EVENINGThe pilot grits his teeth. STATIC ROARS.PILOT
(into helmet mic)
We lost him. Let's go!CALIFORNIA
We are going to wait!California listens. FAINTLY, through WHITE NOISE:SOMERSET (V.O.)
Oh, Christ... oh Christ...EXT. DESERT, INDUSTRIAL ROAD -- EARLY EVENINGSomerset stumbles backwards, away from the open box.He is horribly shaken, eyes filled with numb fear.
He leans against the van for support, wretches, sick,
holds the back of his hand to his mouth.SOMERSET
No...EXT. DESERT -- EARLY EVENINGMills is watching Somerset, grabs John Doe by the shirt.MILLS
Get up. Stand up! Let's go!Doe stands, tries to walk. Mills is moving quickly,
towards Somerset. Doe can't keep up.JOHN DOE
You've made a good life for
Shut up!Doe falls and Mills starts dragging him.EXT. DESERT, INDUSTRIAL ROAD -- EARLY EVENINGSomerset wipes saliva from his lips and tears from
his eyes, takes a deep breath, looks to see Mills
Oh, fuck, no...Somerset straightens, tries to pull himself together.
He swallows, draws his gun.SOMERSET
(into hidden mic)
Listen... listen to me. Whatever
you do... don't come in here. Stay
away. No matter what you hear, do
not move in.
(starts toward Mills)
John Doe has the upper hand.Somerset picks up his switchblade and flips the blade
back in. He enters the flatlands, running.EXT. DESERT, INDUSTRIAL ROAD -- EARLY EVENINGMills sees Somerset coming and pulls Doe so that Doe stands.JOHN DOE
Here he comes.MILLS
(shouts to Somerset)
What the fuck is going on?JOHN DOE
I wish I could have lived
like you do.Somerset keeps running toward Mills.SOMERSET
Put down your gun! Throw it
away!Mills leaves Doe behind, walks toward Somerset, gun down.MILLS
What?Somerset is fifty yards away and closing.SOMERSET
Throw your gun down now!MILLS
What are you talking about?JOHN DOE
Do you hear me, Detective
Mills? I'm trying to tell
you how much I admire you,
and your pretty wife... Tracy.Mills freezes, turns to John Doe.MILLS
What did you say?Doe smiles.Somerset slows, close by, out of breath.SOMERSET
Throw your weapon, detective!JOHN DOE
It's disturbing how easily a
member of the press can purchase
information from the men in your
David... please...JOHN DOE
I visited your home this morning,
after you'd left.Mills is filled with aching terror.JOHN DOE
I tried to play husband... tried
to taste the life of a simple man.
It didn't work out... but I took a
souvenir.Mills turns to look at Somerset with pleading eyes.
Somerset holds out his hand.SOMERSET
Give me the gun.JOHN DOE
Her pretty head.MILLS
Because I envy your "normal"
life. It seems envy is my sin.Fury rises in Mills. He grips John Doe's shirt collar,
pressing his gun against John Does' forehead.MILLS
It's not true.Somerset raises his gun and points it at Mills.SOMERSET
I can't let you do this.Mills sees Somerset's gun, raises his gun to Somerset,
still gripping Doe.MILLS
What's in it?Somerset keeps his gun on Mills, can't hold back tears.MILLS
What's in the fucking box?Somerset still cannot answer, gun in his hand trembling.JOHN DOE
He just told you.MILLS
Say it's not true.JOHN DOE
Oh, it is.SOMERSET
This is what he wants.Mills stares at Somerset, gun pointed. The wind whips
across them. The HELICOPTER can be HEARD distantly.JOHN DOE
Become vengeance, David...Mills turns his gun back to John Doe.MILLS
(to John Doe)
Shut up!Doe stares up at Mills with wild expectation.JOHN DOE
Shut your fucking mouth!Mills pistol whips Doe across the face, knocks him to
one side. Doe straightens, still on his knees, face
Kill me.Doe lowers his head, waiting for execution.SOMERSET
He wants you to do it!Mills hold the gun at Doe's head, undecided, furious,
pulls the hammer back.SOMERSET
You murder a suspect, you're
throwing everything away. I
won't let you do it.MILLS
Fuck you! You won't say anything.
He tried to run... I fucking shot
him... whatever...Mills tears at his bullet-proof vest, reaching under
to yank at the microphone and receiver...MILLS
No one has to know.He rips off the wire and throws it aside, standing with
the gun aimed at John Doe's head.SOMERSET
If you're gone, who fights?MILLS
For what?JOHN DOE
David! Who takes my place if
you're gone?JOHN DOE
She begged for her life,
detective...Somerset edges toward them, gun leveled at Mills all
the while.JOHN DOE
She begged for her life...
and for the life of the baby
inside her.Mills' face fills with confusion -- then a wave of horror.Doe's eyes register shock.Somerset lowers his gun, not pointing it anymore, tears in
his eyes.JOHN DOE
You didn't know.Mills gags, tears welling up, both hands on his gun, trying
to bring himself to pull the trigger.SOMERSET
If you kill him... he wins.John Doe closes his eyes.A pause. Mills is trembling.MILLS
Okay... he wins.Mills fires. BLAM!John Doe flops back, covered in blood.Somerset stands looking, miserable.Mills stares down at Doe's corpse.Long, long pause. Wind whistles across Somerset and Mills.Doe bleeds onto the dirt, very dead.SOMERSET
No.Mills drops his gun and walks away.
Wow. The pacing in that scene is absolutely brilliant. And notice how Walker doles out information from one character to the next, each revelation ratcheting up the tension and conflict a notch:
- Somerset discovers the box contains the head of Mills’ wife
- John Doe reveals to Mills that he knows Mills’ “pretty wife”
- John Doe reveals that he visited Mills’ house that morning
- John Doe reveals that he “took a souvenir… her pretty head”
- Somerset’s silent actions corroborate what John Doe has said
- John Doe reveals his goal: He wants Mills to “become vengeance” and kill Mills
- John Doe reveals that Mills’ wife “begged for her life”
- John Doe reveals that she begged for the life of “the baby inside her”
- Mills reveals he didn’t know his wife was pregnant
As heinous as Doe has been in the whole movie, it’s this final revelation — how he killed Mills’ wife who was pregnant — that sends Mills over the edge.
There are so many interesting levels to this sequence. One that really strikes me as I re-read these pages is that each character operates out of their own sense of logic:
- John Doe tried to live a normal life and failed, and kills Mills’ wife as a means to achieving ‘victory’ on two counts: (A) By having Mills murder him (John Doe), he turns an innocent man into a killer — like John Doe; (B) He dies the way he wants to.
- Somerset’s uses one logical point after another — “This is what he wants / He wants you to do it! / You murder a suspect, you’re throwing everything away / If you’re gone, who fights / Who takes my place if you’re gone / If you kill him… he wins” — to no avail.
- Mills’ logic is based on a simple rage-based calculation: The fucker killed my wife / I’m going to kill him. He doesn’t feel better afterward, the murder doesn’t bring back his wife, but at that precise moment when he mutters, “Okay… he wins,” then pulls the trigger, his actions seem justified, even logical.
And of course… we never see the severed head. That decision to leave the visual up to each of our respective imaginations makes the horror of the murder even that much more powerful.
It’s a fantastic sequence. And put yourself into Walker’s mind. What do you think he felt when the idea suddenly struck him: “There’ll be a box… delivered… with Mills’ wife’s head in it.” What an enormous insight that must have been. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had that revelation early in his process because it provides an immutable end point toward which he could build everything in the script. Truly a great scene. And here is the movie version:
What about you? What do you see in this scene? What lessons about screenwriting can we learn from it?
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