23 October 2012

Seven (1995)

Morgan Freeman, left, and Brad Pitt are shown in a scene from "Seven."

"Long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to light."

In "Seven" (1995), serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey), who chooses his victims based on the Seven Deadly Sins, leaves behind the quote from John Milton's "Paradise Lost" at a crime scene. Director David Fincher and screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker spend the entirety of the film showing us just how long and hard that way is, carrying out an unrelenting examination of the evil that may or may not be festering inside every one of us.

Make no mistake: "Seven" is a bleak, unsettling picture, its setting a purposely unnamed metropolis where the only variation in the weather is the strength of the endless downpour; its antagonist left to plot and carry out his grisly work off-screen for the first 90 minutes (to maintain his anonymity, Spacey's name isn't in the opening titles); its protagonists doing little more than recording and cataloging the horrific scenes he leaves behind.

Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is at the end of the line. He's seen too much of this urban nightmare, and in exactly one week, he'll be retired, somewhere "far away from here." Enter his replacement: young Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt), recently relocated with his wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), from "upstate." While Somerset is weary and cynical, Mills is eager and optimistic that doing his job will make a real difference.

The seven days chronicled change both men in profound ways.

"Seven" is known as a violent, gruesome film, but watch it again and you'll notice none of the violence occurs onscreen and Fincher shows us only brief glimpses of its aftermath. It's implied violence, which is more disturbing, as it engages the audience, forcing them to fill in the gaps whether they want to or not. Though we never actually see the head in the box, there probably is an image burned into the brain of anyone who has seen the movie.

Even more unsettling: John Doe, deranged and psychotic though he may be, might make a kind of sick, twisted sense. "We see a deadly sin on every street corner, in every home and we tolerate it," he says. "We tolerate it because it's common, it's trivial. We tolerate it morning, noon and night. Well, not anymore."

His way of dealing with it obviously isn't the answer, but it's hard to argue that he doesn't have a point.

With a worldwide box office take of $327 million, "Seven" was the seventh-highest grossing film of 1995. It established Pitt as a legitimate leading man and Fincher as Hollywood's go-to man for dark, depraved material (though he has shown he is capable of more with recent Oscar nominees "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" and "The Social Network").

Though a critical and popular hit, "Seven" received little award recognition—its only Oscar nomination was for editing. Its influence has been seen in countless violent, grimy serial killer movies and TV shows in the past 17 years, though none has achieved the dark, twisted beauty of Darius Khondji's cinematography, of blacks so rich and deep, yet still full of vivid detail. And the opening title sequence—depicting John Doe's handwritten notebooks, set to music by Nine Inch Nails—has been emulated just as much, if not more.

"Seven" made careers and, for better or worse, paved the way, both stylistically and in terms of subject matter, for an extraordinary amount of entertainment that has followed it. As powerful and relevant today as it was in 1995, "Seven" is the scariest, most disturbing movie I have ever seen.

Greg's Grade: A

(Rated R for grisly afterviews of horrific and bizarre killings, and for strong language. 127 minutes.)

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