Seven (stylized as Se7en) is a 1995 American neo-noir psychological crime thriller film, directed by David Fincher and starring Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt as homicide detectives William Somerset and David Mills.
In an unnamed American metropolis where the crime rate is high and it is seemingly always raining, Somerset is about to retire and be replaced by Mills in the department, but the two get caught up in a string of horrible murders, each inspired by the Seven Deadly Sins and all caused by one intelligent and elusive Serial Killer.
Released to great success, the film effectively resurrected Fincher's interest in filmmaking after the Troubled Production of his previous film, and is often ranked with The Silence of the Lambs and Psycho as the pinnacle of serial killer fiction, with its distinctive dark atmosphere and skillful balance of Gory Discretion Shots creating a far more disturbing product than the Gorn films that try and emulate it.
A comic book series called Se7en published by Zenescope Entertainment tells the events of the movie from the viewpoint of the killer. The comic also explores the backstories of the killer's victims.
This film provides examples of:
- Admiring the Abomination: Downplayed. While not quite to the level of admiration, Somerset repeatedly urges Mills not to underestimate John Doe and instead to acknowledge him as the meticulous threat he is.Somerset: It's dismissive to call him a lunatic. Don't make that mistake.... This guy's methodical, exacting, and worst of all, patient.
- Arc Number: Seven. In addition to the seven deadly sins, the main plot of the film takes place over seven days (with the days appearing as titles onscreen), Somerset arrives for supper at Mills's flat at seven o'clock, and the box containing Tracy's head is delivered at seven o'clock. The Criterion Laserdisc has a total of seven sides.
- Artistic License – Gun Safety: Mills is seen failing to observe proper trigger discipline in several instances, such as the chase scene with John Doe. Justified in this instance, as it helps establish that he is an impulsive and hotheaded Cowboy Cop in contrast to the more restrained Somerset.
- Autocannibalism: The Sloth victim bit off and ate his own tongue.
- The Bad Guy Wins: John Doe manages to have Mills become the sin of "Wrath" as Mills shoots him in the head. Depending on how you look at it, this trope is either downplayed or played terrifyingly straight.
- Bait-and-Switch: When Mills gets home, he asks Tracy about "the kids." He then goes into another room and greets his dogs, which is what he was actually talking about.
- Big "NO!": Mills lets out several as the truth that his wife is dead begins to seep in.
- Blood Knight: According to Somerset, California and the rest of the SWAT team love their job.
- Body Horror: While many of the victims' bodies are left in bloodily mutilated states, Gluttony and Sloth are distinctly disfigured from the inside out upon discovery, the former extremely bloated with darkened veins, and the latter emaciated past the point of human recognition.
- Break the Badass: Part of John Doe's plan for Mills.
- Buddy Cop Show: According to Word of God, Fincher was initially turned off by the screenplay because it sounded too much like a generic buddy cop movie. Despite the superficial trappings (down to the Salt and Pepper pairing), it doesn't really have a huge amount in common with the trope as it usually stands, however.
- Bystander Syndrome:Somerset: Well, in any major city, minding your own business is a science. First thing they teach women in rape prevention is never to cry for help. Always yell "fire." Nobody answers to "help." You holler "fire," they come running.note
- The Cameo: Charles S. Dutton as a cop.
- Can't Kill You, Still Need You: John Doe doesn't kill Detective Mills when he has the chance because Mills hasn't seen or played his intended part in Doe's grand finale.
- Captain Obvious:The coroner lifts the head of the Gluttony victim, where it has been resting for several hours.Coroner: He's dead.(Beat)Somerset: Thank you, doctor.
- Chekhov's Gun: Somerset's knife that he picks up in the opening scene comes in handy when opening the back side of the painting at the lawyer's office and opening the box that Doe has sent to the desert at the climax.
- Chekhov's Skill: Somerset has a dart board in both his office and at home. He's established to carry a switchblade and is seen practicing his aim by throwing the knife at a dart board. In spite of all this setup, his throwing skill never comes into play. In the script, he was supposed to throw his knife at John Doe to stop him from shooting Mills, but this was cut.
- City Noir: Detectives solve a grisly case in a bustling, constantly raining city.
- City with No Name: It appears to be a composite of New York and Los Angeles noir cities.
- *Click* Hello: John Doe does this to Mills after the chase.
- Cluster F-Bomb: Along with his hotheaded, impulsive nature, Mills ("M-I-L-L-S, fuck off!") swears like a sailor."Fucking Dante! Goddamn poetry-writing faggot, piece of shit! Fucker!"
- Cold-Blooded Torture: Gluttony and Sloth are tortured over the course of days or months.
- Convenient Photograph: The lawyer's wife noticed a flipped painting in the photograph taken at her husband's crime scene. There was no clear reason for the painting to have been photographed specifically since its importance to the case was only due to the wife recognizing it was upside-down.
- "Could Have Avoided This!" Plot: After the third victim is found, a photographer shows up at the crime scene, takes photos of Mills and Somerset, then leaves after Mills yells at him and shoves him. When Mills and Somerset locate John Doe's apartment the next day, they find the photos from the crime scene being developed in his dark room and realize that the photographer was Doe himself. If they had arrested him for trespassing, in theory, they could have prevented the last four murders in the film. Mills is even foolish and impulsive enough to tell the photographer his surname, which allows him to track down Tracy."We had him. The photographer is on the fucking stairs. We had him and we let him go."
- Crapsack World: Detective Somerset and the villain seem to share this perspective on the world. In the end, Somerset states that the world is still worth fighting for, even if it is a shithole.
- Creative Closing Credits: The grungy credits scroll down instead of up.
- Creator Cameo: The film's writer, Andrew Kevin Walker, appears in exactly one shot as the male corpse in the opening scene.
- Cruel Mercy: John Doe has already proven himself to be a monumentally depraved piece of work with the sheer methodical cruelty of his various killings. When he corners Detective Mills during a downtown chase in the rain, he leaves him alive in what appears to be a random moment of mercy. It turns out that he had already been stalking the detectives who were pursuing him for some time. He had far greater plans for Mills in mind; decapitating his wife Tracy out of Envy and making him the final piece in his murder set by letting Mills kill him out of Wrath.
- Da Chief: The Police Captain moderating the protagonists.
- Death Notification: The hero detectives have to bring bad news to the lawyer's wife.
- Decapitation Presentation: Tracy's unfortunate fate, when Doe delivers Mills her severed head in a box in the middle of the desert; however, viewers never actually see the head.
- Despair Event Horizon:
- The man forced to rape and kill the Lust victim is deeply, deeply traumatized both at the scene and at a later questioning, shaking violently, hyperventilating, and verging on an emotional breakdown.
- Mills crosses it immediately after John Doe tells him that Tracy was pregnant when he killed her; it was the first time he had heard about it.
- Detective Drama: The plot focuses on two detectives trying to catch a murderer.
- Dingy Trainside Apartment: Mills and his wife live in an apartment foisted on them by a dodgy real estate agent who kept hustling them through on inspection so they wouldn't notice the trains passing by like clockwork throughout the night and day. Somerset can't help finding this Actually Pretty Funny. And the noise of the trains gives John Doe cover to murder Mills's wife.Somerset: A soothing, relaxing, vibrating home.
- Dirty Cop:
- It's briefly mentioned that it's easy for reporters to bribe cops to get information on crimes. Which is how John Doe finds out where Mills lives.
- While not as bad as many examples of the trope, Somerset and Mills do resort to some slightly underhanded methods in their pursuit of Doe, such as illegally tracking Doe's reading habits (the film was made before The War on Terror made invasions of privacy like this the rule rather than the exception) or bribing a homeless woman to provide false witness in order to secure a warrant to search Doe's apartment.
- Don't Celebrate Just Yet: Doe ends up in prison in the third act, unable to kill anyone else. However, he already finished his plan, and the worst is yet to come for Mills and Somerset.
- Downer Ending: Tracy (and her and Mills's unborn child) is senselessly murdered by John Doe, and Mills in turn kills Doe — with both him and Somerset knowing that's exactly what Doe wanted, since his murder of Tracy symbolized Envy (as he claimed to covet Mills's "family man" life), and Mills killing him would, in turn, symbolize Wrath, completing his plan. Mills is then arrested, a hollow, traumatized husk of a man. While the film tries to end on a relatively optimistic note with Somerset's (studio-mandated) Hemingway coda, it seems awfully futile in the face of what's occurred.
- Dramatic Stutter: The terrified man who was involuntarily recruited as the punisher for Lust does this when describing what happened.
- Dressed All in Rubber: Latex bodysuits were implemented by the killer for Lust.
- Drink-Based Characterization: Somerset's taste for red wine contrasts pointedly with Mills's preference for Pabst Blue Ribbon, a popular beer among the American working class, evidencing how Somerset is much more cultured and erudite than Mills. Mills doesn't even know to serve wine in a wine glass.
- Empathic Environment: It's raining during most of the movie. The rain was meant to symbolize the third level of Hell, as described in Dante's Inferno. The idea is backed up by numerous references to the work throughout the movie.
- "Eureka!" Moment: When Mills mentions that "just because the fucker's got a library card doesn't make him Yoda", Somerset realizes that the FBI is able to track the killer based on his reading habits.
- Evidence Dungeon: John Doe's apartment is connected with all his crimes. It has photos of Gluttony, the severed hand of Sloth, 2000 handwritten diaries detailing his thoughts, and a gob-smacking amount of materials connected to his crimes. But no fingerprints, meaning it was all part of John Doe's "work".
- Excuse Me, Coming Through!: In one scene, Mills crashes through a couple of living rooms in his pursuit of John Doe.
- Eye Scream: When asked why he is retiring, Somerset makes a passing reference to a man who was mugged the night before, and after the mugger had taken his wallet, he pointlessly and sadistically stabbed the man in both of his eyes.
- Face Death with Dignity: As being killed was a part of his plan, John Doe merely closes his eyes gently when Mills approaches with his gun, unable to surmount his wrath.
- Failed a Spot Check: Almost nobody seems to notice John Doe walking into the police station, literally red-handed, shirt splattered with blood, until he shouts "Detective!". A cop even walks past him at arm's length. You can see a single black guy stop and stare at Doe right before he shouts, but by that point, Doe's already in the middle of the hall.
- Finger in the Mail: A package is received from the captured Serial Killer containing the head of his latest victim — Mills's wife.
- Five-Second Foreshadowing: Moments before Mrs. Gould recognizes that a photo of a painting in her husband's office shows it hung upside down, Somerset turns around to glance at a different painting in Gould's apartment.
- The very opening scene itself packs a lot of this, like John Doe shaving to avoid leaving fingerprints, the various victims & their apparent sins, and the pregnancy article.
- On the way to the Gluttony crime scene, Mills wonders whether anyone has confirmed that the victim is dead. Later, everyone assumes that Sloth is dead, but it turns out that he's alive.
- After John Doe surrenders, the tech mentions "...three blood types..." found on John Doe. For John Doe himself, the Pride victim, and Tracy Mills.
- Somerset straight-up tells Mills, "This isn't gonna have a happy ending."
- During his research, Somerset encounters two images of decapitation. In this scene, Tracy is framed in an extremely tight close-up that only shows her head.
- As Somerset drives to the desert, John Doe distinctly tells Mills "You won't miss a thing", referring to the culmination of his plan Mills will witness and the family he was distant from that has already been murdered.
- On their way to apprehend Victor, Mills, and Somerset have a conversation in which Somerset admits that he has never fired his gun in the line of duty, while Mills has fired his. This foreshadows the ending, in which Somerset draws his gun and fires a warning shot to stop the courier and Mills shoots John Doe.
- The Milton Quote by Summerset: 'Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to the light' is at the beginning of the movie's descent into the bowels of the city/hell. The audience doesn't see bright daylight again until the climax of the movie which takes place in Daylight Horror.
- Freeze-Frame Bonus:
- The name of the Pride victim is written on the label for the bottle of sleeping pills glued to her hand.
- Pausing the film when the photographer shows up at the Sloth victim's apartment reveals him to be John Doe.
- We never see Mills's wife's head in the box, but some viewers would swear they did because there's a brief glimpse of her face in the middle of the sequence.
- From Bad to Worse: The entire movie has this continuously, but the last ten minutes deserve special mention. It got a lot worse fast.
- Gambit Roulette: John Doe's plan hinges upon: the police finding the Gluttony message behind the fridge, the Sloth victim not being discovered ahead of time, the police finding the message hidden behind the painting in Gould's office, the police being able to connect the fingerprints behind the painting to the Sloth victim, the police finding the Sloth victim on the appropriate day, the Pride victim choosing to kill herself, the package containing Tracy's head arriving at the scene at the right time, somebody actually opening the package and seeing its contents (one of the cops in the helicopter, upon seeing the package, radios for the bomb squad to be brought in - why would this not be Somerset's first assumption?), and convincing Mills to kill John Doe, without anyone intervening. Additionally, practically every murder takes place in a location where someone could have easily interrupted John Doe before completing the murder in question (Somerset notes that John Doe left the scene of the Gluttony murder twice in order to buy more spaghetti sauce, and hand waves no one interrupting the Greed murder with the Bystander Syndrome) - he was extraordinarily lucky that no one did so.
- Genre Mashup: It's a neo-noir crime thriller with the trappings of a horror film.
- Giallo: It isn't one, but the film's visuals seem to be heavily influenced by the genre.
- Good Guns, Bad Guns: The older By-the-Book Cop Somerset carries a Smith & Wesson Model 15, while Cowboy Cop Mills carries a semi-automatic handgun, a custom Springfield M1911.
- Gorn: Although it's mostly unseen. Most of the horrors are nigh-unfilmable and left to our imagination.
- Gory Discretion Shot: Used extensively, but most prominently in the murder of the Lust victim. And thank God for that.
- Gray Rain of Depression: See Empathic Environment above.
- Gross-Up Close-Up: The Gluttony and Sloth victims' bodies are displayed in quite excruciating detail.
- Hannibal Lecture: John Doe offers one to Mills and Somerset towards the end, namely positing his plan as his disgusted reaction to the sins plaguing modern life and how thoroughly they are tolerated by society. When Mills describes what he does as "[killing] innocent people," he's very quick to break down the sin he sees in each of his victims."Only in a world this shitty...could you even try to say these were 'innocent people' and keep a straight face."
- Hell Is That Noise: That music in the club. It even makes the detectives nervous.
- Hidden Depths: Somerset is surprised to hear Mills described as the funniest man Tracy has ever met. Under better circumstances, perhaps Somerset would have gotten more of his casual charm.
- Homoerotic Subtext:
- When they're waiting for Somerset's FBI contact, Mills asks why they couldn't sit opposite each other because sitting next to each other makes it look like they're dating, and near the end, there's a scene where they're both shaving their chests, and Mills jokingly comments that if he keeps coming home late, his wife is going to get suspicious.
- In a Deleted Scene, Mills tells Somerset, "Just don't jerk me off, okay?" Somerset answers that he'll get Mills up to speed on how the department operates, give him whatever bits of wisdom he can... "...but jerking off is something you'll have to do yourself." Mills can't help laughing.
- If You Kill Him, You Will Be Just Like Him!: A variant. In the climax, Somerset reminds Mills that if he killed John Doe, he'd prove the villain right by letting himself become Wrath.
- Implied Answer: How Mills finds out his wife's head is in the box.Mills: Tell me she's alriiiiight!Somerset: ...if you murder a suspect, David-Mills: Noooo!
- I'm Standing Right Here: Early on, when Somerset pleads Da Chief not to hand the case to the inexperienced Mills, the latter notes that he is right with them in the room.
- Imperiled in Pregnancy: Tracy. While Doe didn't intentionally target a pregnant woman, only learning of the pregnancy in the course of the murder, he's only too happy to use this fact to taunt Mills at the climax.
- Insanity Defense: Upon turning himself in, John Doe says that if Mills and Somerset accept his deal of escorting him to the location of the last two victims, he will plead guilty to all charges. If, however, they don't accept his deal, he will plead insanity. His lawyer points out that, given the sheer extremity of Doe's crimes, such a plea would have a good chance of succeeding. Somerset then counters that, if they brought him to court, Doe's lawyer threatening to plead insanity would itself be admissible as evidence against Doe (that is, the fact that Doe was mentally acute enough to recognize that pleading insanity might be a good idea would be good evidence that he was, in fact, sane). Doe, of course, freely admits that he doesn't believe he's insane (and Somerset agrees with him, although Mills does not), which isn't to say he and his lawyer wouldn't be able to convince a jury otherwise.
- Internal Reveal: At one point in the film, Somerset and Tracy meet up, and he's the first and (as far as we know) only person to hear that she's pregnant (albeit unsure as to whether she wants the baby). It comes back when John Doe is explaining to Mills how he killed Tracy, and goes out of his way to state that "[Tracy] begged for her life...she begged for her life, and for the life of the baby inside of her." While Mills is merely in anger and denial upon Doe's initial confession, it's this bombshell that sends him into a state of shock, despair...and wrath. Then, just to twist the knife further, Doe casually tells Somerset:
- I Surrender, Suckers: A variation occurs at the climax. John Doe turns himself in, but only to ensure that his master plan of completing his "work" goes off without a hitch.
- Jitter Cam: What with Fincher's predilection to controlled, locked-down tripod shots, this film stands out as the one with his highest use of handheld camerawork. It's only used in a handful of scenes, such as when Mills chases Doe through his apartment complex, or when Somerset opens the box, realizes what Doe's plan is, and immediately runs over to him and Mills in an effort to prevent his plan from being completed.
- Jump Scare: The presumed-dead Sloth victim suddenly coughing is one of the most famously effective examples in modern film, mainly because his horrifically emaciated state, his initial lack of movement, and the audience's belief that he's just another murder victim make it so they think there's no possible way he could still be alive. But alas...
- Karmic Death: What the killer is aiming for, at least in theory.
- Kirk Summation: Subverted. During John Doe's Hannibal Lecture, Mills notices a hole in his logic and makes a spot-on rebuttal, but Doe ignores him and continues the lecture.Doe: And after [Gluttony], I took the lawyer, and both of you must have secretly been thanking me for that one. This is a man who dedicated his life to making money by lying, with every breath that he could muster, to keeping murderers and rapists on the streets—Mills: "Murderers."
Doe: A woman—
Mills: "Murderers", John. Like yourse—
Doe: A WOMAN! So ugly on the inside...
- Ladies and Germs: Played straight by the Police Captain.
- Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Several remarks about the plot throughout could very easily be used to apply to the film itself.
- At one point, Somerset tells Mills that "this isn't gonna have a happy ending."
- Doe towards the end, describing the effect his full plan (read: the climax of the movie) will have on the world, especially in contrast to Mills's claims that it won't be remembered in two months' time."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. (...) When this is done..when it's finished...it's going to be...people will barely be able to comprehend it. But they won't be able to deny."
- Let Me at Him!: When Somerset tries to stop Mills from killing Doe. It doesn't work.
- Letters 2 Numbers: "V" is replaced by the similar-looking "7".
- Lock-and-Load Montage: Mills and Somerset getting ready for the final trip is shown in a couple of key shots of them getting wired up, putting on a Bulletproof Vest and loading their guns.
- Motive Rant: John Doe while in the car.
- My Death Is Just the Beginning: John Doe is adamant that his work will commence a bigger revolution. Mills is quick to dismiss this theory, telling him that he's "a Movie of the Week, at best", but considering the lasting legacy of this film, perhaps he was correct in a different sense.John Doe: What I've done is going to be puzzled over... and studied... and followed... forever.
- Never Give the Captain a Straight Answer: The police officer at the Lust crime scene invites the detectives in with the line, "You better see this."
- Never Speak Ill of the Dead: Averted with SWAT officer California played by John C. McGinley. Moments after finding Sloth tied to a bed and apparently dead, he whispers to the body, "You got what you deserved."
- No Warrant? No Problem!: A point of dispute between Mills and Somerset after they find John Doe's apartment. Hot-headed Mills claims that the fact that Doe shot at them should be reason enough to force themselves into his apartment while the latter reminds him that they still needed a warrant first and entering without one would risk Doe getting Off on a Technicality. Mills wins out by kicking the door open with his boot.
- Nothing Is Scarier: The murders in this film are so horrific that many people forget that they're almost all offscreen or shown in very little detail, and we never get to see any of them happen. The "Lust" victim is a particularly good example — we don't see any part of the body, and it's still one of the most horrifying murders in cinema history.
- Not Me This Time: John Doe states that he's not responsible for the dead dog on the side of the road.
- "Not So Different" Remark: When he is in the car with Mills and Somerset, John Doe acknowledges that he enjoyed torturing his victims, but he points out that Mills would also take pleasure in hurting him if he had impunity.
- Not What It Looks Like: When a list of books includes Of Human Bondage, Somerset clarifies to Mills that it isn't what it sounds like.
- Novelization: Written by Anthony Bruno and based on the original script.
- Numerological Motif: Seven, alluding to the Seven Deadly Sins.
- Oh, Crap!: Somerset, when he finds out what's in the box.
- One Drink Will Kill the Baby: Seemingly averted, as Tracey is shown drinking wine during the dinner with Somerset. She must have known, or at least strongly suspected, that she was with child.
- Onscreen Chapter Titles: Each new day gets its own Title In with the name of the weekday.
- "Open!" Says Me: Mills does this after the chase in order to break into John Doe's apartment without a search warrant.
- Pinball Protagonist: An unusual example for the Police Procedural genre.
- Police Are Useless: Ultimately, the police are entirely unsuccessful in stopping John Doe's plan or even hindering it. Lampshaded by Somerset.
- Police Procedural: Contains elements of the genre.
- Posthumous Villain Victory: John Doe, after murdering five people to become five of the Seven Deadly Sins, completes his design when he himself has become Envy by murdering Detective Mills's wife and the unborn child he didn't know about; using this to goad Mills into shooting him dead and becoming the last remaining sin, Wrath.
- Put on a Prison Bus: The movie ends with Mills being driven off in a police car.
- Red Oni, Blue Oni: Somerset is wise, cautious, and jaded, while Mills is callow, impulsive, and idealistic.
- Relative Button: John Doe pushes Mills's hard in order to cement Mills crossing the Despair Event Horizon, and fulfill Doe's own Thanatos Gambit.
- Retirony: Played with, and did indeed come true in one version of the story, where Somerset killed Doe to stop Mills from doing it because he is retiring. The opposite is true but Somerset decides not to retire because of his experiences.
- Room Full of Crazy: John Doe's apartment.
- Scenery Censor: Mills's head blocks the audience from seeing the Lust victim's groin, just after it was mutilated by a bladed codpiece.
- Shame If Something Happened: A variant with John Doe talking about Mills's wife; he's not actually threatening him but describing the things he's already done.
- Mills tells his wife "Serpico's got to go."
- The greed murder (a pound of flesh) is a reference to The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare.
- The killer writes a line from Paradise Lost by John Milton behind the refrigerator of the first victim: "Long is the way and hard, that out of hell leads up to light."
- In the library, Somerset looks for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer and The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Mills tries to read The Divine Comedy in his car. During the dinner at Mills's, the detectives realize that these books inspired the killer.
- Mills says about the killer: "Just because the fucker's got a library card doesn't make him Yoda."
- Somerset and Mills identify John Doe because he borrowed The Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, Helter Skelter, In Cold Blood, Of Human Bondage, works by the Marquis de Sade and Thomas Aquinas.
- When Mills and Somerset are knocking on John Doe's apartment, Mills petulantly grumbles that he feels like one of "Charlie's fuckin' Angels".
- There is a store called Wild Bill's Leather Shop.
- Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: More or less the lesson Somerset tries to impart to Mills. Mills argues back, saying essentially Silly Rabbit, Cynicism Is for Losers!.
- Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Trailer/Not Named in Opening Credits: Kevin Spacey. He was the one who insisted that he not be associated with the film in any way until it was released. The producers actually wanted him to have top billing.
- As a result of this, his name is the very first thing seen during the closing credits; the second line is, "Cast (in order of appearance)."
- He also said it worked to his advantage since that meant he didn't have to appear on talk shows and stuff to promote the movie.
- Sleep Cute: A shot of Mills and Somerset sleeping cuddled in on a couch in front of the fingerprint lab.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Way, way down the cynicism end.
- Strike Me Down with All of Your Hatred!: Doe's manipulation of Mills to kill him, which would avenge his wife's murder but also fulfill the last of Doe's plan by making Mills and Doe the Wrath and Envy "punishments", respectively."Become vengeance, David. Become...wrath."
- Suicide by Cop: John Doe's death.
- Suicide by Pills: John Doe cuts off the Pride victim's nose and glues a phone to one hand and sleeping pills to the other, offering her the Suicidal Sadistic Choice of calling for help but having to live with her disfigurement or killing herself by overdosing. As proof of her vanity, she chooses the latter.
- Suspect Is Hatless: How John Doe is described by his neighbours.
- Sympathy for the Hero: John Doe comes to admire the main detectives after they surprise him by showing up at his house despite how careful he was to leave no clues. This is not a good thing for them. At all.
- Take Our Word for It: A major part of the film's aesthetics. Almost all of the most horrific elements of the film happen entirely offscreen.
- That Liar Lies: As John Doe reveals Tracy's fate to him, Mills angrily jams his gun into Doe's head and yells at him."YOU LIE! YOU'RE A FUCKING LIAR! SHUT UP!"
- There Is No Kill like Overkill: Mills shoots John Doe in the head at point-blank range. Then he fires into his body five more times while he's lying on the ground, already dead.
- Thousand-Yard Stare: After killing John Doe, the expression of the normally animated Mills is frozen into one of these for the remainder of his runtime.
- To Know Him, I Must Become Him: Somerset spends a good portion of the film trying to get inside the killer's mind, and urging Mills to do the same. He spends the first night of his investigation reading books related to the Seven Deadly Sins. Mills, on the other hand, sits up all night staring at crime scene photos searching for clues.
- Tomato in the Mirror: Of a sort. It turns out that Wrath is Mills himself. When John Doe promises to take him to the field, we've already seen Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Pride, and Lust, and we know that Envy and Wrath have to be on the way. Envy is John Doe, who beheaded Mills's wife in a fit of jealousy. When Mills finds out, he kills John Doe in a fit of rage, ultimately obeying Doe's command to "Become Wrath".
- Trap Is the Only Option: Mills and Somerset know John Doe has something up his sleeve, and are determined to be ready for anything. They're not.
- Trash Landing: Mills falls from a fire ladder and lands in a pile of trash bags while pursuing John Doe.
- Unbuilt Trope: The film helped to popularize the archetypal 90s and 2000s Psychological Thriller/serial killer movie but goes out of its way to avert or subvert many of the tropes the genre would become associated with: the murders are not shown in detail and given very little screen time, the victims are not depicted as being given karmic punishment despite the killer's delusions, but instead being ordinary if flawed people who were brutally murdered by an unhinged sadist for little provocation, there is little blood and gore, the killer is not given a Freudian Excuse or much characterization, Police Are Useless, and The Bad Guy Wins.
- Unreveal Angle: We never get to see the contents of the box.
- Villain Reveals the Secret: A particularly gut-wrenching one in the climax when the villain murders Detective Mills's wife Tracy, then reveals that she was pregnant. She had confided this to Detective Somerset but hadn't told her husband yet. When John Doe realizes this, he even gloats about it, incensing Mills to the point where he executes him on the spot, which is exactly what Doe wanted.
- Villains Out Shopping: When Mills and Somerset go to John Doe's apartment, they encounter him returning from the grocery store.
- Vomiting Cop: One of the SWAT team members is about to throw up when they find the decayed corpse of Victor (the Sloth victim).
- Wham Line:
Somerset: California, stay away from here. Stay from here now. Don't— don't— don't come in here. Whatever you hear, stay away! John Doe has the upper hand!
- John Doe is shackled and in police custody, and he, Mills, and Somerset are in the open, where Doe can't possibly stage an ambush. Furthermore, there's a helicopter nearby with California and the SWAT team. But Doe has a box delivered to the area, and Somerset opens it and looks in....
Doe: I took a souvenir: her pretty head.
- Shortly after, John opts to break the news before Somerset can and tells Mills about how he entered his home, met Tracy, and then when things went sour...
- Wham Shot: After they find the Sloth victim, it seems that the poor sucker has gotten the worst of Doe's murderous intentions. Then he moves.
- Where the Hell Is Springfield?: The name of the city is never specified. At one point, Tracy mentions that she and David used to live "upstate," presumably referring to upstate New York, and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker said that the screenplay was heavily inspired by his time spent in New York City, except that the movie's location is apparently an hour's car ride from the arid desert, which is not true of NYC.
- Working the Same Case: This happens very early on when Somerset has been assigned to the Gluttony murder and Mills to the Greed. The discovery of the word "Gluttony" written in grease behind the Gluttony victim's fridge identifies the two murders as the work of the same killer.
- Would You Like to Hear How They Died?: Doe describes to Mills how his wife begged for her and her baby's life.
- Wretched Hive: The massive unnamed city where it takes place is a rainswept hell of apathy and suffering. Writer Andrew Kevin Walker describes the script as his "love letter to New York."
- Xanatos Speed Chess: John Doe didn't anticipate Somerset and Mills discovering where he lived, which necessitated him stepping up his schedule.