Sins of the director

A fine cast overcomes the visual gluttony of Seven

The deeper you delve into the latest serial-killer thriller Seven--and the film's damp, shadowy, claustrophobic look does make you feel like a spelunker at times--the more you're likely to be annoyed by the visual excesses of director David Fincher. The man has one feature film to his credit--the underrated financial flop Alien 3--as well as a slew of music videos and TV commercials. His resume should tell you one thing--he is accustomed to milking the maximum visual impact out of a two- or three-minute spot. When you're working to get a corporate message across, an emphasis on extravagant lights and manipulative camera effects is mandatory.

When you're filming a big-budget feature, however, you have to juggle priorities. There are times when the narrative requires that one element of the production--performance, dialogue, cinematography, editing--take the foreground and carry the others. It's a tough job, especially for someone who prides himself, as Fincher clearly does, on his very cinematic approach to movies. Many of our most promising new filmmakers--like Edward Burns and Larry Clark--are either too apathetic or intimidated by technology to create a film that really moves, that uses your eyes and ears to catapult stories straight to your gut.

Fincher isn't cowed by technology, although a bit more caution might have made Seven a fleeter, more satisfying suspense experience. This squalid story, about a pair of New York City detectives (Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt) investigating a killer who offs victims in fantastically gruesome ways based on the Seven Deadly Sins, presents a metropolis that's always dark and rainy. Indeed, almost every time a body is discovered, the police force has to use flashlights--not because it's night outside, or the light switches don't work, but because Fincher doesn't want you to forget you're taking a tour of the dark side of human nature.

If you can look past the relentless visual onslaught, Seven is a suspenseful, stylishly macabre hunt for yet another intellectual urban fiend. A trio of thoughtful, patient characterizations by Freeman, Pitt, and Pitt's current girlfriend Gwyneth Paltrow (Flesh and Bone, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle) makes the script's sometimes pretentious musings on mental illness and retribution palatable. Pitt's character is the least delineated of the three, but he once again displays an emotional fluidity that suggests if he can just tone down the bad-boy bluster, he'll make a genuinely good character actor someday.

Freeman is fine as a veteran, bookwormish investigator in his last week of service at NYPD. Although his character doesn't want to admit it, his interest in the world has been reawakened by the killer, who uses the murders as sermons to an immoral city.

The killings--a fat-cat defense attorney is bled to death in his office to illustrate Greed, and an obese loner tied to a chair and force-fed until he hemorrhages, as an example of Sloth--are horrifically over the top, but in keeping with the otherworldly mood established by Fincher, special-effects wizard Rob Bottin has created a series of corpses that remind you of Goya's darkest paintings in all their tortured, pathetic detail.

Murky though it is, Seven does surprise you and even might elicit a few screams with some nicely placed "gotcha" moments. Yet many will feel screwed by a finale that suggests writer Andrew Kevin Walker lost the steam that kept him inspired through most of his script.

For anyone who gets deeply involved in a suspense movie's characters, Fincher and Walker commit the cardinal sin--introducing and developing a major player, only to have that person abruptly sacrificed for the sake of a cheap surprise. The fact that this "plot twist" is the film's conclusion leaves a bad taste in your mouth as the end credits roll.

If Seven doesn't exactly infuse fresh blood into a petrified formula, it does take that formula, attach strings to its lifeless arms and legs, and make it dance an energetic jig for your viewing pleasure. You'll only feel cheated if you hold up genre classics like Manhunter and Silence of the Lambs as standards for what this film should do. It's a haunted house of styrofoam bogeymen you'll forget the instant the lights go up.

Seven. New Line. Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt. Written by Andrew Kevin Walker. Directed by David Fincher. Opens Sept 22.

 
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