Steady pouring rain has a certain effect on the human psyche: it reminds us of our mortality. If we shudder at the thought of life's end, at a vacuum of empty and hollow nothingness, then we will be necessarily depressed by the deluge (this might explain why the least religious countries complain most readily about bad weather); if, however, we entertain other possibilities, there is no greater inspiration for our thoughts and actions. We gaze upon the moods of the gray skies and their tears and we come to understandings about small constellations of detail that might not have occurred to us previously. We see beauty as we never saw it before; we see the ones we have loved and, occasionally, the ones we will love; and we come, as the Romantics did, to grandiose conclusions about the contours of our souls and where they are destined to migrate. Admittedly, these ideas are not for everyone. Looking at those gray skies may cause the happy among us to drift into happier realms, but if we are already saddened by our stay on earth, our grief might be exacerbated. Evil visions, past and future, might conspire and attempt to gain our attention and fears. And as most palpable among these sweeps and swerves of thought we find our conscience and the numerous crimes that we allow it to amass. Regardless of how good a life we have lived, how many correct and righteous decisions we have made, however faithful we have been to the people we care about, a few agenbites of inwit will obtain. Perhaps our lies helped us to get ahead in life, while obliterating any chances of turning back (one of the watchwords in this film); perhaps we have been hypocrites and chided others for our own secret vices; perhaps we have not been faithful to anyone or anything save our own hedonistic urges, although you cannot be truly faithful to something that does not want the best for you. Some of us who believe in divine retribution also see opportunities in the endless rain that wets the pages of our beloved tomes. Which brings us to this famous film.
The setup derives its pulse from contrasts that we have seen countless times before, and yet rarely as effectively. There a young, white cop of gruff temperament (a maturing Brad Pitt), and an older policeman of African descent (Morgan Freeman) who has a distinctively mild take on life despite the myriad horrors he has witnessed in his line of work. The younger cop bears the simple name of David Mills; the older the first two names of this well-known writer and moralist. Maugham is a fitting choice because of his instinctive feel for the weaknesses of others – insight that he exploited ruthlessly in his work, but that's a story for another day. Weaknesses seem to abound in the unnamed and perpetually gloomy city in which the events take place, with it always (until the crucial last scene which is as bright and sunny as any postcard cornfield) being rainy, overcast, and late afternoon or early evening. The two officers should have little to do with one another since Mills is on his way in and Somerset, in one of cinema's greatest clichés, a venerated policeman on the verge of retirement. If you know modern film you also know what generally befalls retiring policemen, and if you don't I'll leave that matter to your own discovery.
What links the two men is a nasty bit of business: a series of sadistic crimes with a strange pattern that would lead the faithful to suspect one of their own. Our first victim is an obese character who is found face down in his pasta bowl. The coroner (in a very busy role) inspects the corpse and surmises that the man, who was bound to the chair in which he sat dying, was forced to eat at gunpoint until his stomach or intestine or some component of the digestive apparatus could no longer endure and burst. Thus, we may conclude, this poor beast was obliged to eat himself to death – an ironic twist on his obvious sin, gluttony. Gluttony, as someone said, is the sin that lasts the longest in our lives, but it is the first here and would have little bearing on the religious beliefs of all involved were it not for the subsequent discovery of a lawyer who bled to death in his office. Our coroner determines that this fellow, who happens to be Jewish like the villain in this renowned play, had the now-proverbial pound of flesh extracted from him in exchange for a temporary reprieve from death's shroud. Since the evidence suggests there was no way he would have survived, even with near-immediate medical attention, his murder was as deliberate as that of our first sinner although the lawyer's crime, greed, was far worse. To help our two detectives with their search, the sins in question are scrolled in blood across prominent display areas at the crime scenes. We know and they know there will be five sins left, and the plot has all the kinetic energy it needs to reach its dénouement at full speed.
A few words of advice before you proceed to unravel the order in which all seven deadly sins – envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath – are portrayed. This film, which I happened to see upon its initial release in the autumn of 1995, is not for, forgive the pun, the weak of stomach. You may only be exposed to the remnants of violence but they are disturbing enough to keep you awake well past the closing credits. Most people are duly aware of what well-known actor emerges as the killer John Doe although the actor's name was not officially associated with the film to heighten its mystery; in any case, the age, appeal and acting ability of the person selected is superb, dovetailing nicely with the intricacies of the crimes without frothing over into hamhanded wickedness. The world in which all these atrocities are committed is fallen and, sad to say, still falling – the hallmark of the noir genre in which morality has long since been replaced by a half-rued resignation to man's inherent flaws. No one can be trusted; no one is above suspicion or guiltless; and, worst of all, no chance for any kind of redemption seems to be available. There is also the matter of Mills's wife Tracey (Gwyneth Paltrow), who tries to palliate her irascible spouse with the same mildness that makes her get along so well with Somerset. The three form a tenuous bond, mostly out of need on the Millses' part, but also because Freeman always comes off as nothing if not sincere, and in one great scene they sit around at dinner as a train rumbles beneath them, brutally jostling the apartment and its residents. Apparently trains run every ten or fifteen minutes even during the night, which might explain the good deal they got on rent. "The real estate agent took us here in-between trains," say the newlyweds, and Somerset nods. Here even rental agencies are not immune to those gray skies.