In David Fincher’s dark, grisly crime thriller “Seven” atmosphere is as essential as dialogue. Nearly every camera shot from cinematographer Darius Khondji finds some way to contribute to the ugliness of the film’s decaying big city setting. The heavy shadows, grimy color palette, perpetual rain – it makes for a visual experience that is consistently raw and depressing. Its effectiveness still stands out today.
Fincher’s crime thriller works within a pretty familiar genre framework. Two police detectives, one old and seasoned, one young and headstrong, follow clues left behind by a by a twisted, methodical serial killer. But “Seven” comes off as something more than your standard police procedural. The film deals heavily with the psychological effects left by this bleak unnamed city and the gruesome violence that emerges from its rotten core.
Morgan Freeman plays Detective William Somerset, a veteran officer of nearly 30 years. Somerset is well-respected and good at his job, but police work in a city of such moral decline has taken its toll. With only a few days left until retirement he is partnered with Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), an impulsive but idealistic rookie who just recently moved to the city with his wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow).
Somerset and Mills are called on to investigate a gruesome murder where an obese man had been bound and forced to eat himself to death. Clues lead to a second crime scene and eventually a deadly pattern is discovered. The detectives surmise that the killer is preaching a sermon and basing each of his murders on the seven deadly sins (gluttony, greed, lust, etc.). Each murder scene is meticulously framed and hidden within them are hints to this John Doe’s next victim. Somerset and Mills must find a way to get in front of the killer before he can complete his sermon.
One strength of the story is found in its handling of its killer. He is a madman who is unquestionably insane but he’s no imbecile. He never loses control and is always one step ahead of the detectives. Fincher and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker keep John Doe under wraps only revealing him in the final few scenes. For those who haven’t seen the film I won’t reveal who plays him. But let’s say its a brilliantly uncomfortable performance from an equally uncomfortable actor.
“Seven” is an absolute showcase for Morgan Freeman, a consummate professional with an ever-present strength and gravitas. He is the film’s most grounded character and more subtly impacted by the vile urban mire. Pitt is given the much broader task of playing an ambitious young firebrand eager to make a name for himself in the department but impervious to the effects Fincher’s hellscape has on his family. Very different performances but seamlessly woven together by a persistently unsettling script and setting.
As “Seven” maneuvers its way forward you see it fully embracing its sense of unease and dread. It ends up in a place befitting of a more disturbing horror genre entry and it’s final moments will shock you to your core. Suffice it to say it’s not a movie for the squeamish yet Fincher doesn’t show a lot of violence. Instead it is insinuated through the investigation and glimpses of the effects are in each crime scene. It’s intensely effective.
“Seven” isn’t an easy watch and it still packs the same visceral gut punch it did 25 years ago. Fincher’s bleak and oppressive second feature film shook up the crime thriller genre and set the stage for the litany of copycats that would come after it. And while it may best be remembered for its notorious ending, it’s the aforementioned atmosphere that gets under your skin and stays there.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS