Monday, October 10, 2011

Scariest Characters in Cinema #23 - John Doe

The coolest thing Kevin Spacey has ever done - 15-year-old spoiler alert! - was to insist that he be uncredited in the (amazing) opening titles of Seven and kept out of the trailers and marketing materials. As John Doe, the serial killer with a Biblical agenda that Detectives Mills and Somerset (Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman) are hunting, Spacey is barely seen or heard for the first three-quarters of the movie. When he enters the movie, covered in blood and calmly introducing himself to his pursuers ("Detectiiiive!"), it serves as much more than a "Hey, that's Kevin Spacey!" moment. For most of the movie we've seen the evidence of his grisly mission to cleanse his city of sinners, details of his brilliant, exacting and methodical nature (this is also our proper introduction to director David Fincher's flair for darkness [thematic and literal] and procedure-oriented drama). When he introduces himself to Mills and Somerset, our attention shifts from the grisly investigation to dread at how John Doe's surrender fits into his plan.

Much of the film is set up as a series of Socratic dialogues between Mills, who believes in his ability to do good in the world, and his older, more jaded partner, who believes that the world is beyond helping. When John Doe, in the back of a squad car on the way to uncover his final victims (claims) joins the conversation, he's terrifying because he clearly believes his murders are making the world a better place - he's the dark reflection of Somerset's cynicism and Mills' self-righteousness. For a murderous psychopath, he's pretty perceptive. Spacey is soft-spoken and centered (I love his delivery, when Somerset discovers a dead dog, of the line "I didn't do that"), and as he turns the tables on the detectives in horrible fashion, his obvious pleasure at the plan he's executed not only provokes Mills' wrath but ours too. The still-shocking ending (which Brad Pitt insisted in his contract not be changed by the studio) continues to disturb not just because of what's in the box but because of what it tells us about how we act upon our own morality. I'd do exactly what Mills does, and I'm not entirely comfortable with that knowledge, which is exactly as John Doe would want it.

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