Film Sordid Cinema

How to Make an Entrance #3: John Doe in ‘Se7en’

There are innumerable critical choices involved in the production of a great film, but one of the most apparent (and important) is determining how an important character first appears. It can happen in a flash, or slowly build to a satisfying reveal, but however achieved, much of a movie’s success can hinge on these moments. Heroes, villains, and anyone in between; the first impression is often how we remember them for the rest of our lives, so filmmakers had better make it count. How to Make an Entrance hopes to celebrate some of the greatest film character entrances of all time by attempting to examine and explore why they work so well — and along the way, perhaps reintroduce readers to some classic cinema friends.

John Doe in Se7en (1995)

Great cinematic entrances aren’t necessarily confined to a first act; in the case of John Doe in David Fincher’s Se7en, the audience doesn’t get their first good look at the twisted serial killer’s face until the film is nearing its conclusion. Yet, they may already feel they know him a bit through the brief interactions he has with Detectives Somerset and Mills — and of course, through his work. He’s methodical, meticulous, and dedicated; we’ve already picked up on that, even if his true motivations are somewhat of a mystery (though they’re hinted at enough). So what purpose does his proper introduction serve? In this particular case, the villain’s reveal has more to do with theme than character. John Doe calmly walking into the police station to turn himself in is used to demonstrate one of Se7en‘s recurring themes: societal apathy.

What sort of thing could perpetrate such horrific crimes, the gruesome and purposeful results of which Somerset and Mills have been simultaneously disgusted and fascinated by? Surely it must be some monster — a foul demon straight from Hell. But as Somerset warns, “If we catch John Doe and he turns out to be the devil, I mean if he’s Satan himself, that might live up to our expectations, but he’s not the devil. He’s just a man.” And a man won’t do for a case like this, not in a society that pays so little mind to its surroundings. How could people like that possibly notice the meek, little human that steps out of a taxi cab, crosses a busy street, and enters a place populated with government officers specifically trained and tasked with capturing him?

John Doe is here to get society’s attention; that’s what the elaborately staged murders are for, and that’s why he turns himself in — this isn’t about getting away with anything. The acts that propel the plot of Se7en are supposed to be a slap in the face, a wake-up call that city folk aren’t connecting as communities anymore, mostly because they just don’t care. As Somerset opines, “I just don’t think I can continue to live in a place that embraces and nurtures apathy as if it was virtue.” He also makes a point that in self-defense classes, women being attacked are taught to scream “Fire!” because no one responds to cries for “help.”

Apathy reigns in this metropolis, which is why crime runs rampant and cynicism pervades. Director David Fincher demonstrates this very idea in John Doe’s entrance scene, as the most wanted man in the city is ignored by the men obsessed with catching him. Despite their powers of observation, the detectives don’t notice his odd shuffling and bandaged fingers; they don’t notice his soft-spoken requests; they don’t even notice the blood-stained shirt! No one does!

People hustle about with their eyes pointed downward, unwilling to engage in anything outside their narrow view. They walk in front of him, past him, behind him; John Doe makes no effort to hide, and yet still cannot be seen. Even Fincher’s camera ignores him, focusing on his feet, or relegating him to unimportant background space. What does it take in this place? Only upon unleashing a scream of frustration is John Doe finally given recognition, his existence acknowledged in the center of the frame. We know who he is now.

Everyone backs away, he has achieved awareness. “Wanting people to listen, you can’t just tap them on the shoulder anymore. You have to hit them with a sledgehammer, and then you’ll notice you’ve got their strict attention.” Only upon an act of extremism do the citizens this gloomy city finally respond, finally notice something other than their own business. That’s what the murders are all about, of course, but the idea that we’re all so apathetic to what’s going on around us to me is best portrayed in Se7en by one scene, and one line.

“DETECTIVE!”

That’s how to make an entrance.

* For more articles in this series, click here

In Case You Missed It

1 comment

Mike November 15, 2018 at 8:28 am

I love this scene to death.

Reply

Leave a Comment

Share
Tweet
Share
+1
Reddit
10 Shares