I like guts, both in people and movies, and "Seven" has guts up to its eyebrows. It's a kamikaze of a film, a flaming Zero that doesn't waver a millimeter as it follows a doomed trajectory into the superstructure of our hopes and aspirations.
Delivering a crushing downer of an ending that will, I'm certain, utterly destroy its commercial prospects (and explains why such a potent star vehicle wasn't released by a major), the film is the rare movie about ideas more than its own plot.
Alas, the idea it pursues with a terrier's tenacity is nihilism. The message: Life stinks; death and evil are triumphant everywhere; the worst are full of passionate intensity. And that's the good news! The bad news is that once again, Brad Pitt seems totally out of control, off following his own agenda, which involves absorbing as much camera attention as possible.
As a young urban detective on a compellingly awful case, he sweats, he bleeds, he suffers, he falls, he grimaces, he gets dirty, he plays with dogs; his aching narcissism would be overpowering if it weren't somewhat undercut by the astringent anti-sentimentality of the great Morgan Freeman playing his wiser, older partner and mentor and, incidentally, almost wiping him off the screen.
Worse, Pitt's histrionics almost destroy the film at its intellectual level. The story seems to be structured around an argument that pits nihilism against optimism. Freeman's Detective William Somerset, who has spent 40 years looking at bleeding human wreckage and is now soul-sick, is standing for disillusionment and Pitt, as a gung-ho believer in justice and hope, a man who wants the make the world a better place, standing for optimism.
But Pitt doesn't seem to want anything except good reviews. He doesn't even recognize the existence of a world, so caught up is he in his own dramas. His David Mills never begins to make a mote of sense, and you never understand why he became a homicide detective at all.
He represents nothing except the actor's vanity and therefore makes hash out of the argument.
The case that has Somerset and Mills so agitated involves a homicidal maniac who is methodically eliminating people who have committed one of the seven deadly sins. An obese man, for example, is tortured into eating himself to death. A notoriously greedy lawyer is enjoined to give up an exact pound of flesh -- not bone, not gristle, but only flesh.
I should mention it's always raining, it's always dark, and in this gloomy world, there isn't a shred of hope. The city itself goes unnamed, a sort of metaphysical City of Dread that has Seattle's weather, New York's subway, Chicago's traffic, Vegas' tawdriness and L.A.'s arid plains a few miles out of town. All the murders take place indoors, where director David Fincher loves to show the aesthetic grandeur of squalor, the glamour of maggots and vomit, the abstract purity of blood spatters; plus he always forgets to turn on the lights, so the movie transpires in a moist half-light of film noir. It's not so much directed as over-directed, by a man in the clutch of a fearsome obsession.
But the script, by Andrew Kevin Walker, is extremely literate, particularly as it plays Freeman's erudition against the younger man's cruder energy. Moreover, the investigation and the clues that lead to the murderer are well thought out and continually provocative. As a narrative, the film is quite involving.
Of course, the killer is one of those hellish spawn of Hannibal Lector that exist only in the minds of writers who've had too much caffeine. But he's still a useful conceit: an intellectual who loves the games-playing aspect of his crimes and murders more as an elaborate deconstructed narrative than a crimes of passion. He doesn't require justice so much as exegesis. The ideal detective for this guy would be . . . Lionel Trilling.
Who is this masked man? Well, I'll play along with the filmmakers who deny his existence in the credits for the sake of surprise and say only that he's a semi-well-known actor noted for his portrayals of debauchery, entirely up to the challenge, in limited screen time, of projecting mesmerizing intensity and total craziness. With spacey blue eyes and utter certitude, he's a pretty frightening piece of work.
Whether it deserves credit or not, "Seven" deserves something. It plays out its bitter hand to the bitter end, finding a way to a bitter climax that will enrage and disturb probably everybody who sees it except the odd screwball critic or so. Its message to the audience isn't "Hey, kids, let's feel good," or, "Isn't this a cool experience?" No, it's "Drop dead."
Starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman
Directed by David Fincher
Released by New Line Cinema
Rated R (extreme violence and gore)
Sun score: **1/2