“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 suspender 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, and while a substantial cult following seems assured for so edgy and bizarre a film, 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It’s not a buddy picture; the murders themselves are not actually depicted, and the usual gritty big-city realism has been replaced by a highly stylized, borderlinearty visual conception that greatly cranks up the psychological and physical intensity of the drama.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 are 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 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 in Fincher’s channeling of 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 (a former Fillmore East and rock concert lighting designer) have sculpted a dark, murky world, parts of which are illuminated only by flash light and much of the rest of which is suffused in a pea-soup green that defies penetration.
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 fin score, which mixes tension with a sobering gravity; and the incredibly dense sound mix, the film has been hand-tooled with 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 decisively putting the picture in the must-see category 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-times movie star presence in the manner of such greats as Spencer Tracyand 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 as the eager young detective who undergoes a drastic change in a week’s time. The balance between Pitt’s brash emotionalism and profanity and Freeman’s measured control and well mannered correctness actually works surprisingly well.
Gwyneth Paltrow gives as much human dimension as possible to her few scenes as Pitt’s sensitive, uncertain wife.
Except for a 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.