Noticeable skill has gone into the making of “Seven,” but it’s hard to take much pleasure in that. The story of two cops on the trail of a terrifying serial killer, “Seven” is most notable for how lovingly it lingers on the grotesque and repulsive details of the man’s sadistic crimes. If movies were rated by how many showers are needed before viewers can feel human again, this picture would go off the chart.
The creative team behind “Seven"--specifically director David Fincher, screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker and cinematographer Darius Khondji--would probably consider that last remark a compliment. Certainly they’ve expended great effort toward making “Seven” as creepy and distasteful an experience as they could. It’s nice to have goals, fellas, but the truth is even sadism can be overdone.
The film’s initial plot mechanism is a good one. Lurking in an unnamed major city is a brilliant but twisted individual determined to commit a series of murders based on the seven deadly sins, to turn the sin against the sinner in some kind of demented teaching tool to redeem humanity.
Want examples? You’ll be sorry you asked. In murder one, a hugely fat individual is forced at gunpoint to eat more and more until his stomach bursts as a lesson against gluttony. In the second, a high-powered criminal attorney is required to cut a pound of flesh off his own body to illustrate the perils of greed. All of which is shown, via crime scene photos and caring close-ups of the victims, in unapologetically grotesque detail.
Thrown together to investigate this unholy mess are two detectives who are the inevitable polar opposites, partners with nothing in common except this increasingly lurid crime. Lt. William Somerset is a meticulous perfectionist, a veteran of 34 years on the force who has only one week left before retirement. As a soul-weary lone wolf who views police work as a cerebral exercise, Morgan Freeman is exceptional, giving a performance capable of holding this picture together during its periodic attempts at self-destruction.
Newly arrived in town is Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), a cocky, motor-mouthed slob who’d rather kick down a door than knock on it. “Seven” does so poorly by this character, turning him into a fatuous, stereotypical dolt, that Pitt’s usually effective presence is wasted.
Faring even worse is the talented Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays Mills’ pure-of-heart wife, Tracy, a saintly personage whose presence in the picture is such a flimsy contrivance it’s amazing any actress agreed to play it.
Feeble contrivance turns out to be one of “Seven’s” deadly sins. Key plot points are not always believable, and a great many of the film’s twists are visible a considerable way down the road. When you add a level of pretension that indicates somebody believed this picture had profound things to say about the human condition, the results are regrettable.
What keeps “Seven” alive, aside from Morgan Freeman’s performance, is the film’s visual strength. A specialist in commercials and music videos who made his feature debut with “Alien 3" director Fincher is someone who believes looks can kill. Working with cinematographer Khondji (“Delicatessen”), Fincher has used all manner of visual flourishes, including an unusual film developing process to ensure that no shot in the picture is an average one.
Regrettably, all this expertise, including an ability to create apartments so roach-ridden and rundown you can practically smell the decay, has been put in the service of what is basically a detailed viewing of the gruesome workings of a perverse mind. “Seven” does not seem like anyone’s idea of entertainment, but public executions drew big crowds in their day and there is little reason to believe that human nature has gotten any more refined and elegant in the interim.
* MPAA rating: R, for grisly after-views of horrific and bizarre killings, and for strong language. Times guidelines: the equivalent of a forced tour of a morgue.
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Brad Pitt: Mills
Morgan Freeman: Somerset
Gwyneth Paltrow: Tracy
Richard Roundtree: Talbot
R. Lee Ermey: Police Captain
An Arnold Kopelson production, released by New Line Cinema. Director David Fincher. Producers Arnold Kopelson, Phyllis Carlyle. Executive producers Gianni Nunnari, Dan Kolsrud, Anne Kopelson. Screenplay Andrew Kevin Walker. Cinematographer Darius Khondji. Editor Richard Francis-Bruce. Costumes Michael Kaplan. Music Howard Shore. Production design Arthur Max. Art director Gary Wissner. Set decorator Clay A. Griffith. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.