"Seven" may be the best thriller ever made. It may also be the most gruesome, sadistic, disturbing film you have ever seen. On an artistic level, it is impossible not to be moved and delighted by this movie: the writing is excellent, the photography is beautifully bleak and the acting strikes a perfect pitch. These film-makers have given us something that should go down in history as one of the great films of our time. But they certainly make us pay for it.
The story's beginning is formulaic. Disillusioned, jaded, semi-legendary homicide detective William Sommerset (Morgan Freeman) has one week (seven days) to go before retirement. During that week he is to break in his replacement, the young hot-shot, David Mills (Brad Pitt). There is tension between the two detectives, just as there is in every other movie that starts off with some variation of this basic theme, where the young, energetic super-cop is paired with the veteran who has lost his energy ("Lethal Weapon," "Report to the Commissioner," "Point Break" and many, many more).
But this is where "Seven" departs from the formula. The tension between the two men actually goes somewhere: they decide not to work together until circumstances and Mills' wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), conspire to reunite them.
Someone is murdering people in a series patterned after the seven deadly sins (Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Pride, Lust, Envy and Wrath). Sommerset and Mills start on the first case, Gluttony, together. They find the most obese man they have ever seen ("Somebody call Guinness," says Mills) dead at his dinner table. He has been forced to eat himself to death. It sounds farfetched. It isn't. Their precinct captain wants them to investigate as a team, but Sommerset quickly pulls the plug. He has had a premonition, and not only does he not want to be involved in the case, he doesn't want Mills on it either.
Unfortunately for everyone (maybe including us, certainly including our stomachs) the case to which Mills is transferred turns out to be the Greed crime; he and Somerset are sucked into investigating the series. At one point in the course of this horrific journey, Mills turns to Somerset and asks "Have you ever seen anything like this?" Sommerset keeps looking straight ahead and, after a pause, says "No." That's damned right. We have pools of blood, feces, vomit, roaches, decomposition, forced self-mutilation and some of the most brutal tortures you can imagine. Along with some you probably can't (watch out for Sloth and Lust).
The movie takes place in a city that we never hear mentioned by name. It is almost certainly New York, but the film does not allow us to be sure and therefore does not allow us to localize and explain the extremity of human depravity to which we bear witness.
Whatever city this is, it sure is dark. And here, too, the film-makers show us something new. They don't film the movie at night to make it dark. Instead they film it mostly during the day, allowing window-shades, buildings and profuse amounts of rain to block most of the light. It is easy to make a movie dark which takes place in the absence of light, but when the days appear drab and lifeless (when the light casts no light), that is true darkness.
Part of the drabness is created through the use of C.C.E., a color-enhancement effect rarely used in film-making, which makes lights and darks appear more vivd and creates a greater contrast between light and shadow.
The film is directed by David Fincher ("Alien 3") who has spent much of his career directing music videos, and some of that new-age style is apparent in his use of hand-held cameras and lightning-fast jump-cuts. Nevertheless, "Seven" is an almost complete departure for him. In fact, this film is a departure for anyone. Even the opening titles are unlike anything that has come before them. They are a twisted version of an MTV program--"The Real World" gone psycho. Names and images flash onto the screen in blinding, blurry white, accompanied by booming, pulsating music. The aural assualt doesn't stop once the movie begins. The first few minutes of dialogue are almost unintelligible, covered by the sounds of sirens or cars or trains. We know at this moment that we are in for something special. What we don't know is what kind of effort it will require to sit through it.
Andrew Kevin Walker wrote the screenplay for "Seven" while working at Tower Records in New York, and as a first script it borders on the extraordinary. The writing is powerful, meaningful and interesting, while resisting the impulse to be overly flashly. Even with that script, the innovative direction, and the extraordinary artistic design, the acting is what makes "Seven" really special.
Morgan Freeman's virtuosity is no surprise. He has been cheated out of at least two Academy Awards (for "Driving Miss Daisy" and "The Shawshank Redemption"), both times losing to sentimental favorites: actors playing physically or mentally disabled characters (Daniel Day-Lewis in "My Left Foot" and Tom Hanks in "Forrest Gump"). He will hopefully be nominated again for "Seven," but with his luck someone will release "Rain Man II" at Christmas and again deny him his due. Freeman's Detective Sommerset does not just pay lip service to being burned-out. His spirit is so heavy we can almost feel its weight. He lives in a world filled with ugliness, and when confronted with beauty, in the form of Tracy Mills, he seems ready to weep.
Gwyneth Paltrow, as Tracy Mills, is the only real light or beauty in the entire film. She only has a few scenes, but she conveys overwhelming kindness and goodness in addition to the feeling of confinement and despair that the city forces upon her. She lives in an apartment which is located over a construction site, and which shakes like James Bond's martini every time a train passes.
Although all of the acting is superb, the surprise of this movie is Brad Pitt, who showed a great deal of promise in a small role in "Thelma & Louise" and who, since then, has been given virtually nothing to do in the way of performance. Finally, with "Seven," he dispels entirely the notion that he is simply a heartthrob with no acting ability. He has finally broken out of the quandry from which Johnny Depp and Keanu Reeves can never escape. He has proved himself to be an excellent actor.
"Seven" is not for the squeamish, but if you feel up to it, you owe it to yourself to see it. If you are repulsed by what Quentin Tarantino does, beware; "Seven" makes "Resevoir Dogs" look like "101 Dalmations." This movie is in an almost-new realm of brutality, and gets there not by showing needles slammed through breastbones, as Tarantino is wont to do, but rather by showing the aftermath, giving description and letting you imagine things that are infinitely worse.
So we come to the question: Is it worth it? Are the film-makers right to put us through this? The killer says at one point "It's not enough to tap someone on the shoulder anymore to get their attention. Now you have to hit them with a sledgehammer." Perhaps they have hit us with this visual sledgehammer so that we will reconsider what we regard as innocence and lack of sin, when we forgive greed, gluttony and the rest. Sommerset talks of apathy being regarded as a virtue in the city. The killer wants to awaken society from its apathy and so, maybe, do the film-makers. According to them, virtue may defeat sin but it does not defeat the anger that sin creates in the killer and his ilk. Rather, decency or normalcy (in the form of Detective Mills) must be the way to defeat these men. Mills pays for that normalcy. Perhaps that is why the final credits run upside-down (from the top of the screen to the bottom). This a backwards world in which goodness and real virtue go unrewarded, or even punished.
After the ordeal of this film you may feel that you want to grab the sweetest girl you know and hold her until it's all right again. Know that whatever happens, the fear, disgust and sadness that "Seven" evokes quickly start to dull, and that eventually they will disappear completely. I hope.
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