This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Robert Evans’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
In the mid-nineties this stood out, alone, distinct. It shouldn't have, as the constituent parts didn't promise much. The director's main experience lay in music promos and a disastrously received franchise effort, the young writer had no pedigree to speak of and the story, with its pairing of a ready-to-retire veteran with a brash, young detective, screamed over-familiarity. It wasn't and heralded something not yet fully seen in Hollywood, something grotesque yet searingly brilliant.
Seeing and bearing witness are themes, among others, which run throughout. Freeman's character, pre-titles, is seen dealing with another murder case. It's a crime of passion, an argument between a couple which ends in murder. "Did the kid see it?", asks Morgan Freeman's ever watchful Somerset to another detective. He's curious, compassionate, something not exactly shared by his colleague. This is important as two things are established. Firstly, the idea of witnessing crime or sin, but not being able to intervene. Secondly, the destruction of innocence, possibly associated with viewing. It's not long after this that we meet a young detective called Mills, played by Brad Pitt.
A discussion between Somerset and Mills, around midway through the film, further brings this to the fore. Somerset, correctly as it turns out, tells Mills (and us) that this will not end well. "We're just here to pick up the pieces", he states. Their role is to observe, document, nothing more. Mills disagrees, he perceives that they can make a difference. He's shown to be wrong.
This is what makes the ending so powerful; even as we're denied a final shot of what's in the box, we want to see, and this ultimately proves Somerset (and Spacey's John Doe) horribly correct. "They love this", he says at one point, with slight disapproval as a SWAT team excitedly invade a suspects house, but he could just as easily be talking about the audience, revelling in all the excitement. Paltrow has a relatively minor role as Tracey, Mills's wife, and embodies the promise or possibility of goodness, but her name gives a clear indication that in this unidentified, ever-raining, ever-noisy city, only traces of that promise exist, and by the end nothing remains. Doe has won, Somerset is outwitted yet still present, observing and witnessing all, but Mills is both morally and spiritually destroyed. You have to wonder what compels us to come and see his fine film with it's awe-inspiringly awful ending.
Whether as observers, like the boy at the beginning or Somerset, or even as participants like Mills (and Doe?), who both bring about their own 'deaths', it's impossible to come through this nasty, sadistic film entirely dirt-free. I can't think of a bleaker ending in mainstream Hollywood cinema in the 90s, possibly ever. It stays with you, forces you to question why and what you've just viewed. We have Pitt to thank, allegedly. The only thing close to a star in the production, he threatened to walk if the ending was changed.
A couple of years later and Michael Haneke would produce 'Funny Games', shortly followed by less knowing 'torture-porn' horror films. Bleakness had found artistic range and financial reward.