Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Seven Movie Review

Although I saw this when I was already 17, it scared the shit out of me. When I saw it for the first time in the cinema I literally fell out of my chair at the moment when the 'sloth' victim turns out not to be dead. This was one of the most terrifying cinematic experiences I've ever had.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.


Seven is the one film as I reached toward adulthood that really got under my skin in a way that terrified me. This police procedural thriller about a sadistic serial killer was created through the use of set design and cinematography that are just unnerving. I can’t recall another film of its kind that left me so shaken. It’s unrelenting not only in its sick and ghastly murders, of which we only ever see the aftermath, but also in its dark and depressing tone, designed specifically to destroy the audience’s will to go on, the way the rain continually pours down on the movie’s unnamed city and casts a gloom outside every window. Even the ending, which ties everything together and offers some explanation for the apparent irrationality of the killer, is almost entirely without hope or a denouement.


David Fincher had already imprinted his signature directorial style on the successful Alien franchise. This was his second film and it seemed to solidify him as one of the next great creative minds in Hollywood. He brings his personal vision of a world with a dark underbelly to big studio projects. He has maintained an independent filmmaker’s spirit throughout his career, albeit with a much larger budget that is customarily afforded a director of artistic vision. He makes singular films. Can you imagine any of his films (with perhaps one exception) directed by anyone else?

Seven is a neo-noir taken to the extreme edges of darkness such that the classic noir director Fritz Lang probably never dreamed. I wonder what Lang would have thought of Seven. Consider his masterpiece M, an early German sound film that predates and presages film noir of the 1940s. The visual similarities are striking and I would not be at all surprised to learn that Fincher has studied Lang’s work.

The story is not all that complex either for a film noir or a detective procedural. It’s fairly basic: a crime is committed; police begin the investigation; another murder occurs; links are established; serial killer is hunted; there’s a close call; more murders; killer is caught. The killer is revealed as a sort of insane genius with a perfect plan. The detectives are mismatched personalities creating a secondary conflict to that between police and psychopath. All these things are such standard conventions of the genre that to read a plot outline should have given any studio executive pause before committing to a middling formulaic detective plot. Then again, studio execs love retreading familiar material because they know audiences love it and continue to lay down money for the same thing repeatedly.

Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay takes all those elements and creates atmosphere by filling in the spaces with details that set the film apart from its brethren, including an ending that left the studio with serious misgivings about how it would be received. Walker makes the film less about procedure than it is about a dank and polluted city awash in decay, where nothing is as it should be in a morally clean world. This comes through in every scene from the rain that incessantly falls to the nearby subway that rattles the home of Detective Mills and his wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), or the steadily ticking metronome that Somerset eventually finds doesn’t help him sleep anymore.

Fincher applies the finishing touches along with his production designer Arthur Max and cinematographer Darius Khondji. Every set looks rotted and festering, every shot is filled with deep blacks and dark grays. There is a constant sense of something lurking in the shadows. That something is the evil infecting the city, an evil embodied by the killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey, who was not as famous at the time and has a kind of surprise reveal 90 minutes in), who has studied the works of Chaucer and Milton to craft his crime of serial murders based on the seven deadly sins.

Morgan Freeman is Detective Somerset, a calm and seasoned veteran who has seen too much of murder. He is a week from retirement and the last thing he wants to delve into is a series of grisly murders that he believes will drag on for months or years. His new partner, Detective Mills, is played by Brad Pitt in his transition period between pretty boy roles and serious actor work. Mills is a hothead, spurred on by anger toward the criminals he tries to ensnare. He takes the crimes almost as a personal affront to moral order. While Somerset attempt to understand John Doe, Mills writes him off as a simple psychopath. I do wish the Mills character had been more complexly written. He’s a little one-dimensional and in retrospect it’s pretty clear where the story is headed. Walker’s writing of the character and Pitt’s performance telegraph it early on. Pitt’s performance may be the weakest element in the film now that I watch it again. His line readings bear the telltale weakness of an actor trying too hard. I have come to really enjoy Pitt’s acting in the ensuing years, which have seen him ease back and settle into his roles to about two steps above somnambulism. It’s a technique that he has perfected as his own, but in 1995 he wasn’t there yet.

The film’s ability to shock and terrify was its most important success, especially when I first saw it in the theater. I distinctly recall two hours of feeling dreadful. You simply never knew what ghastly image was around the corner. When the SWAT team goes into the sloth victim’s home to find him a decayed corpse lying in bed, I was disgusted and horrified enough. When he started coughing with life, I literally fell out of my theater chair. I can’t recall any other theater experience that has left me so viscerally affected. I nearly cried from the shock of that moment and never fully recovered.

1 comment:

  1. Its a real horror movie, had a great experience of a good movie

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