Why Seven contains Morgan Freeman’s finest performance
I remember my first viewing of The Shawshank Redemption like it was yesterday, and something that stood out to me immediately was the presence of Morgan Freeman. His soothing narration accompanies the film, somehow relaxing our view of the prison setting and the inmates that were put there for a reason.
He’s an actor whose performances will stand the test of time because of this ability to engage with an audience. However, there’s one unique film in which Freeman tests this relationship to his voice, to his persona and acting qualities in an interesting way: Seven. An unsubtle, brutal film, Freeman’s part to play is integral to the way the story unfolds and the way in which we interpret it. Let’s celebrate the man’s work on his birthday by examining why.
In Seven’s opening scenes, the tables are flipped pretty much immediately. If Freeman is able to make us feel at home in a penitentiary in Shawshank, his performance in Seven, in unison with the writing and direction, does the absolute opposite. It betrays our expectations as Freeman tells us that the setting, the city, is not a place to feel relaxed in.
Within the first five minutes, Freeman’s character Detective Lieutenant Somerset asks the newest recruit, Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) “Why here?”, and adds “You actually thought to get reassigned here”. This, coupled with the subsequent scene of Somerset sat up in bed, clearly restless, with a metronome ticking beside his bed in an attempt to ease this restlessness, and you have a film in which Freeman exhibits characteristics that we’re not used to seeing from the actor: he’s no longer our clear-headed guardian.
This set-up is essential for bringing Freeman’s performance and the moral of the story together, which we will explore with two key scenes in mind.
Revealing Freeman’s character
Those key sequences are the café scene in which Somerset talks with Mills’ wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the bar conversation between Somerset and Mills over the killer. In these, Freeman is able to communicate the depth of Somerset’s feeling of fear over the city and its residents in a way that we have to pay attention to.
Consider the café scene first. Tracy approaches Somerset over a personal issue: she’s pregnant and does not want to raise the child in this city. Somerset follows this up with a regretful anecdote over a time where his partner got pregnant and he convinced her to get rid of it. It’s a dark story and it being delivered in Freeman’s smooth voice makes it all the more chilling.
But that’s the point of Seven and how precisely Freeman ties up into it: the world is so hopeless, so full of evil, that creating life feels like a risk. In the scene with Mills, Freeman practically narrates this moral of the story. Consider this line:
“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.”
It’s the certainty with which Freeman delivers the line that’s possibly more devastating than any of the killings, like there’s no other truth. We’ve seen victims that have cut their guts out, been tied to a bed for a year and more. Mills sees it as the work of a madman that needs to be stopped like we do: catch him, everything turns right. But Freeman is so brilliant in this scene because he stops the narrative in its tracks. He steadily and knowingly tells us that, like the Hydra, if you catch John Doe, another man will just take his place. The final scene proves this and Freeman’s performance comes full circle.
The final sequence
The other man that will take John Doe’s (Kevin Spacey) place is Mills himself. The decisive revelation is that Doe has incorporated Mills into his master plan: having beheaded his wife and killed the child inside of her, Doe wants Mills to kill him in retaliation, the embodiment of anger, of Wrath.
What’s fascinating about Freeman’s performance during this moment is the way he portrays Somerset’s desperation in keeping that slither of hope left. The script is smart because it doesn’t simply have Somerset disarm Mills. He still asks for Mills to give him his gun. Somerset knows that the cycle will continue if Mills kills Doe, so he needs Mills to stop himself. It’s the look that Freeman gives that portrays this message so effectively. His eyes stare at Mills like they’re reaching out to him, begging him to prove Somerset wrong.
But he fails: Mills shoots Doe and is taken away, nulled by shock. And we return to the beginning of this article - what we expect from a Freeman performance. The reassuring presence of Freeman should guarantee a happy resolution. And yet, evil wins. It’s devastating and Freeman is the lynchpin for the film’s message. As Mills walks away, we see Somerset stood still by the body, the image of inward reflection. We know, as he knows, that the world has to change, that it still needs to be fought for as he quotes at the end; he’ll be “around” to see it.
Seven is just one case proving why Morgan Freeman holds those veteran credentials. What's your favourite Morgan Freeman performance and why? Let me know by dropping some feedback!
If you liked the article, why not check out my other recent piece on Detroit and how it reflects the current racial tensions raging all over the world? Click here for it.
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