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Become vengeance, David... become Wrath.
~ John Doe encouraging Detective Mills to kill him.
John Doe is the main antagonist of the 1995 hit dark psychological mystery-thriller film Se7en. He is a serial killer bent on savagely punishing those who have committed the seven deadly sins and bring attention to evil in a world that he claims is apathetic.
John Doe is a serial killer obsessed with the Seven Deadly Sins. He carefully targets his victims, stalks them and tortures them to death in a way that represents their "sin". The murders are part of Doe's larger plan to make a statement about society tolerating sin.
The first five of Doe's murders represent five of the Deadly Sins, and include:
Gluttony: Forcing an obese man to eat himself to death. It is mentioned that a person cannot physically eat themselves to death in one sitting, so Doe eventually deals a heavy blow to the man's stomach, causing the lining to burst, thus killing him. His decomposing body is found at a table face down in a bowl of pasta.
Greed: Arranging a fatal bloodletting of wealthy attorney Eli Gould, who has made a living defending rapists and murderers. The victim dies of blood loss after he is forced to cut away a pound of flesh in payment for the greed he has shown and the lies he has told. His body is found next to the word "GREED" written in blood on the carpet of his office.
Sloth: Handcuffing drug dealing pedophile Theodore "Victor" Allen to his own bed for an entire year, and keeping him alive while his body wastes away by injecting him with copious amounts of drugs and medications. The stench of putrefaction was hidden by dozens upon dozens of pine tree air fresheners, and he was forced to wear a gag in his mouth to prevent him from calling for help. When police break into his apartment (believing him to be the killer as his fingerprints were discovered at Eli Gould's office), they instead discover Victor in such a state of decomposition and rot that everyone is shocked when he comes back to life. He has multiple bedsores and his hand was cut off by John Doe to plant fingerprints in Eli Gould's office. He is rushed to hospital, where the examining doctor discovers that the experience has completely destroyed his mind and that he chewed off his own tongue in an attempt to commit suicide. He dies of shock later that night. The word "SLOTH" is written on the wall behind his bed.
Lust: Kidnapping a married customer at a sex club, and forcing him at gunpoint to wear a bladed strap-on and simultaneously rape and kill a prostitute by butchering her internally. She is found chained to a bed, legs spread open and her internal organs mutilated. The word "LUST" is written on the door of the club.
Pride: Mutilating the face of Model Rachel Shade - at one point cutting off her nose "to spite her face" - and forcing her to choose between calling for help and living with disfigurement, or committing suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills. She chooses to die rather than live without her former beauty. She is found dead in her upscale flat. The word "PRIDE" is written in her own blood on the wall above her bed.
Mills and Somerset eventually track Doe to his apartment, unaware that Doe is out at the time. Doe then comes down the corridor and sees the two detectives at his front door, prompting him to fire upon them. Mills chases Doe out of the building but Doe catches him off guard and aims a gun at the side of his head. Mills is unable to identify the killer as his face is shrouded in darkness, but Doe leaves him alive and disappears.
Later, when Mills and Somerset return to the police station, Doe appears to them (having got blood all over his arms and shirt) and intentionally allows himself to be arrested. The police are baffled as to why Doe would hand himself in when he is two murders away from completing his "masterpiece", but through his lawyer, Doe informs them that there are two more bodies hidden away. He then states that he will show them where the bodies are as long as Mills and Somerset are the only two to accompany him, otherwise he will plead insanity. The detectives agree and Doe directs them in their police car to the location of the bodies. Throughout the journey, Mills desperately and aggressively attempts to understand Doe's reasons for his actions, with Doe calmly stating that God told him to reveal to mankind what an awful and tragic place the world has become.
They arrive in a remote desert area in the middle of nowhere and a delivery van steadily approaches them, alarming Somerset. As he halts the van in its tracks, the driver claims that he was told to arrive at this location at this precise time to deliver a box. While Somerset looks at the box curiously, unsure whether he should open it or not, Doe tells Mills that he admires him. Though Mills initially ignores this, Doe soon reveals that he also admired Mills' wife Tracy, finally getting his attention. As Mills listens in horror, Doe reveals was envious of his normal life (representing the sixth sin Envy) and went to visit Mills' wife Tracy, before implying that he may have raped her. Afterwards, he decapitated her, and Somerset is horrified to find that the box contains Tracy's severed head. Somerset then realizes that Doe is planning to have himself killed by the hands of Mills (in order to fully complete the seventh and final sin Wrath) to complete his work. Somerset rushes back to Mills in an attempt to prevent him from killing Doe, knowing that is what he wants, but Doe provokes Mills further by telling him that Tracy was pregnant, as she had been keeping it a secret from him. Doe then closes his eyes, awaiting the inevitable punishment for his crimes as Mills (unable to contain his fury of distress over the loss of his wife and potential child) shoots him in the head, killing him, before shooting his corpse multiple times, despite Somerset's objections. Despite Doe's death, his plan still succeeds since his masterful manipulation had prompted Mills to complete the seventh sin. Mills later becomes nearly catatonic and is placed under arrest for the murder of Doe, much to Somerset's discomfort.
A series of comics, written by Mike Kalvoda, explore more of John Doe's life prior to the film. As a child, Doe suffered from excruciating cluster headaches which were treated with a botched attempt at electroshock therapy. Doe's mother was a religious fanatic, obsessed with sin and eternal damnation. At one point during his school years, Doe began to develop carnal desires for a sexually active girl in his class, which his mother condemned. His mother became infuriated upon finding Doe masturbating in the bathroom and beat him. Doe would later witness his mother having sex with his equally God-fearing uncle.
As a teenager, he became besotted by a pleasant young girl in his religious education class. At this stage in his life, Doe began the habit of writing journals describing his every thought and action. He wrote that his feelings toward this girl were pure and that she was nothing like the girl he lusted over years before. He offered to help the girl with her revision and invited her to his house. Upon entering his room, however, they encountered John's mother, now a violent alcoholic. She was reading John's journals and mockingly read them out to the girl. The girl ran away, while John's mother attacked him and told him that no matter what he did, he would always be a sinner, and would inevitably go to Hell.
Later in life, Doe married, but found his wife cheating on him; John never had children because his wife was unable to, so he never touched her. Soon afterward, he was fired from his job for arguing with his boss. After witnessing a car crash, Doe began to question if God was really watching over mankind.
John visited his mother at his childhood home and found her burning his belongings. She died in the flames, leaving John a key for a box containing the book of the Seven Deadly Sins. Experiencing an epiphany, John proceeded to shave off his fingertips, pull out his teeth and castrate himself, thus renouncing his former identity. Doe dedicated himself to making a statement by using the seven deadly sins against people who had committed them.
Only in a world this shitty could you even try to say these were innocent people and keep a straight face. But that's the point. We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home, and we tolerate it. We tolerate it because it's common, it's trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon, and night. Well, not anymore. I'm setting the example, and what I've done is going to be puzzled over and studied and followed... forever.
~ John explaining his goal.
John Doe was fundamentally a pessimistic man with an fixation on how immoral and evil people were. He was very patient, methodical, cavalier and had excellent insight into other people's reactions and thoughts that was demonstrated in his uncanny planning and strategic abilities. John possessed a massive amount of personal diaries, where he hairsplittingly recorded his own thoughts. Based on these notebooks and his murders, it becomes evident that John Doe enjoys seeing other people in emotional and physical pain.
John was disgusted by each of the people he kills (including himself) and considered them worthy of dying and/or suffering, which he carried out passionately. Because of this, he took someone claiming they were 'innocent' very poorly, with it being one of the few times he lost his composure. He believed he was chosen by God to punish these people and believes his "work" to be a masterpiece that will be held in high esteem by other people. However, John was also very egotistical, since, as Detective David Mills rightfully pointed out to him, the general public likely wouldn't care about his 'masterpiece' nearly as much as he had convinced himself, and he was really just a petty serial killer with delusions of grandeur. Detective William Somerset also pointed out that if he really had been chosen by God, he wouldn't have taken so much pleasure in his murders. Indeed, John freely admitted that he enjoyed killing his victims, claiming there was nothing wrong with a man taking pleasure in his work.
John usually remained unemotional and calm, except to the occasional angry outburst and fanatical monologue. He was a Christian (most likely Catholic, based in his reading material, crucifixes, and adherence to Catholic moral doctrine i.e. capital vices) and was open about admitting his moral issues -- emphasizing his obsessive jealousy of David. He admired David greatly because his thought that he had a "normal life." It was said by the creators of Seven that John has disturbing sexual fetishes, and the pictures in his notebook suggest that he is a sexual sadist.
John as he appears in first Issue of the Se7en comic.
John promising to let his first victim go if he eats the last meal
John putting Eli Gould at Gunpoint
Doe, shrouded in shadow, aims a gun at Detective David Mills' head.
Doe giving himself up at the police station
Doe in a police car with Detective Mills and Detective Somerset
Doe explaining the reasons for his actions to Detective Mills
Doe watching Detective Somerset open the box containing Tracy's severed head
Doe accepting his fate after succeeding in his scheme
Val Kilmer was offered the role of John Doe but declined.
R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe was once considered for the role of John Doe.
R. Lee Ermey originally auditioned for the part of John Doe. After the part was given to Kevin Spacey, Ermey was offered, and took, the part of the police captain.
Upon the film's release, Spacey received critical acclaim for his performance as Doe.
In the "Making of Seven", while Peter Sorel is discussing the details of John Doe's apartment, you can see a press photographer pass with the name "Ray Moore." It is possible this could be John Doe's real name or this is just a false name he used to get the pass. You can also see pictures of John Doe as a child and pictures of his mother.
It is implied that John Doe decided to involve Mills and Somerset in his plan after they located his apartment.
Given that John Doe offered to confess to all his crimes it would have been unlikely that he would succeed with an insanity defense in real life, as doing so effectively showed he was sound enough mentally to distinguish between sane and insane actions. However, he might have been aware of this and simply dangled the offer to the police to lure Mills and Somerset to the desert as part of his plan.