Seven” is dark, grim and terrific. An intensely claustrophobic, gut-wrenching thriller about two policemen’s desperate efforts to stop an ingenious serial killer whose work is inspired by the seven deadly sins, this weirdly off-kilter suspenser goes well beyond the usual police procedural or killer-on-a-rampage yarn due to a fine script, striking craftsmanship and a masterful performance by Morgan Freeman. With Brad Pitt top-billed, this New Line release stands a good chance of a strong opening, but its relentless bleakness and heavily downbeat dramatic trajectory could easily work against sustained mainstream acceptance.
David Fincher’s second feature, after “Alien 3,” cuts against most expectations for this sort of genre piece: It’s not a buddy picture; the murders themselves are not actually depicted, and the usual gritty big-city realism has been replaced by a highly stylized, borderline arty visual conception that greatly cranks up the psychological and physical intensity of the drama.
What’s more, the built-in potential for an overly schematic approach to day-by-day, sin-by-sin murders largely has been skirted by first-time screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker by placing
over the killings the larger arc of the often difficult relationship between the world-weary veteran cop William Somerset (Freeman) and the cocky newcomer due to replace him, David Mills (Pitt).
At the outset, they can barely tolerate each other; to the burned-out, highly learned Somerset, it’s a joke that the impulsive, intuitive, arrogant youngster will be able to fill his shoes when he leaves the force in a week, just as young Mills has little patience for his superior’s methodical, more formal ways.
Obliged to take the kid on his rounds, Somerset pursues an investigation of the death of an enormously obese man who appears to have exploded from eating too much. The next day, an influential defense attorney is found gruesomely murdered, and when the words “Gluttony” and “Greed” are discovered, respectively , at the scenes, Somerset correctly predicts that there will be five more murders to cover sloth, pride, lust, envy and wrath.
Faced with this scenario, Somerset instantly repairs to the library to brush up on his Dante and Chaucer in search of clues. Mills has no time for this sort of boring research or for his partner’s intellectual fastidiousness in general, so it falls to his helpful wife Tracy(Gwyneth Paltrow) to act as go-between and get them to break bread together.
But even with the police working diligently, the murders continue apace, one more grotesque than the last. After three days, Somerset actually makes the major breakthrough of learning the killer’s name and tracing him to his apartment, but the police just miss snaring him, leading to the remaining murders and a tense final sequence in which the brilliant fiend leads the two cops into the countryside on a promise of serving up the last two bodies.
The unidentified city in which the grisly yarn unravels is subject to heavy rain through the early days of the inquiry, which provides the first element to Fincher’s visual channeling of the images. As if to provide the viewer with partial blinders to severely control what one will see, the director, his virtuoso French cinematographer Darius Khondji (“Delicatessen,””Before the Rain”) and production designer Arthur Max have sculpted a dark, murky world.
Beginning with the avant-garde-style credits and on through the superbly off-center widescreen lensing, Richard Francis-Bruce’s nerve-jangling cutting, Howard Shore’s very fine score that mixes tension with a sobering gravity, and the incredibly dense sound mix, the film has been hand-tooled with incredible precision and to powerful effect.
Some viewers may find the result too calculated and artificial, and a measure of European art film preciousness spills out from some of the compositions, but there is no denying the enormous skill that has been brought to the telling of a story that carried with it strong potential for deja vu.
But putting the picture in the must-see category decisively is Freeman’s supremely nuanced, moving performance as the seasoned, bruised and solitary Somerset. Speaking with great deliberation and precision, Freeman subtly conveys the essence of this lifelong bachelor who has simply seen too much in his time but is neither triumphant nor defeated by the sum of his experience.
That Freeman is a superb actor is no secret, but here he also displays big-time movie-star presence in the manner of such late greats as Spencer Tracy and Gary Cooper, shown in the way he uses pauses, looks and quiet underplaying to rivet the attention of the other characters as well as the audience. This is screen acting at its best.
To speak about Pitt’s skills at this point in the same breath as Freeman’s is impossible, but he does turn in a determined, energetic, creditable job. The balance between Pitt’s brash emotionalism and profanity and Freeman’s measured control and well-mannered correctness actually works surprisingly well.
Except for a physical chase sequence, pic features no overt violence, but the gruesome handiwork of the killer is shown in detail, in part courtesy of special makeup effects wiz Rob Bottin. Effect is akin to looking at unexpurgated autopsy and murder scene photographs, which will be quite enough for all but the strongest stomachs.