David Fincher's bleak thriller is one of those films that has almost become a victim of its own influence. Like Reservoir Dogs before it, years of Seven-clones has diminished its power a little — for a while in the late nineties you couldn’t move for rain-soaked cities, twisted serial killers and scratchy white title fonts.
That’s not to say that the story is particularly revolutionary. Detectives Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills (Brad Pitt) are typically mis-matched cops – Somerset is a week away from retirement, while Mills has just been transferred to this unnamed city with his childhood sweetheart Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow). There’s a killer on the loose, whose method of murder takes inspiration from the seven deadly sins – a obese man is forced to eat at gunpoint until his stomach bursts (gluttony), a lawyer is given the choice of body part from which the killer will extract a pound of flesh (greed), and so on...
Frankly, this gimmick isn’t a world away from those inventively themed murder sprees that Vincent Price would embark upon in the likes of Theatre of Blood or The Abominable Dr Phibes. But Seven’s strengths lie not so much in the story, but in the telling. Writer Andrew Kevin Walker poured all his frustration and anger at big city life into his script, and makes each character’s relationship with the city as important a part the film as the chase for the killer.
Morgan Freeman ably portrays the jaded resignation of a man who has lived amongst the worst that society can throw at him, and whose only recourse after years of trying to make the streets safer is to get out completely. There’s a superb scene between Pitt and Freeman where Mills refuses to accept Somerset’s assertion there is basically no hope for the human race, while Tracy’s despairing confession to Somerset about her pregnancy and horror at the thought of bringing up a child in this urban hell is a heartbreaking one.
The water-logged chaos of the city is brilliantly captured in Darius Khondi’s oppressive photography, and while Seven is well paced by Fincher, it is at its best during the set pieces – the discovery of ‘sloth’, Mill’s pursuit of the killer through the driving rain, and the climatic sequence in which the murderer (now revealed as a quietly demented Kevin Spacey) unveils the final two sins – envy and wrath – and in doing so destroys Mills’ life.
Seven’s ending is one that its imitators have never had the balls to match, and although the heroes live while the villain dies, it still remains deeply shocking (anyone who still reckons that Pitt can’t act really should watch him when he’s told what’s in that box). As with most police thrillers there are various convolutions and coincidences that draw the detectives closer to their quarry, but the dialogue and plotting are of a high enough standard for them not to register too strongly. There is a little humour, but otherwise Seven remains pretty much the darkest Hollywood film of the decade, and one of the best.