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‘Seven’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 22, 1995

"SEVEN," a gruesome detective-thriller about a serial killer who ices egregious offenders of the seven deadly sins, portends an unpalatable combination of formulaic writing and unmitigated nastiness.

But although the movie, directed by David ("Alien3") Fincher, is grisly and certainly doesn't make movie history, it's surprisingly well-constructed. It also has the graceful benefit of Morgan Freeman, who turns his role into something masterful. He even makes Brad Pitt look actorly next to him.

In a non-specific metropolis not unlike New York City, a horrifyingly fat man is found dead, manacled and face down in a plate of spaghetti. A second victim, a defense attorney, is discovered with his sides flayed. He has bled to death. The word "greed" is written in blood on the floor. It becomes clear to Freeman, a well-read veteran detective on the case, that the city should anticipate further killings exacted for the sins of sloth, wrath, pride, lust and envy.

There's little point describing any more of the horrors, although you should know that Freeman accurately predicts that the case won't have a "happy ending." But what makes things watchable is Fincher's direction. He has a gift for building understated menace. His cinematographer, Darius Khondji, puts a silky contrast into the colors, making things seem velvety, dark and intense. Howard ("The Silence of the Lambs") Shore's score is memorably insistent, forever prodding you with anxiety. And Fincher lets the characters buff up their roles with significant pauses, inflections and occasional comic touches.

The movie is not merely about tracking yet another sick puppy with a pseudo-biblical plan, it's about the relationship between the taciturn Freeman, who's days away from retirement, and the hotheaded Pitt, his overeager, significantly under-read replacement. Of course, this odd-coupling is the oldest cliche in the Hollywood book. But Freeman gives a sensational journeyman's performance, as one who has worked steadily and thoroughly for more than 30 years, and hasn't pulled out his gun ("with the intention of using it") more than three times.

When Gwyneth Paltrow, as Pitt's young wife, sentimentally recalls her first meeting with her future husband, she tells Freeman she knew he was going to be the man she'd married. "Really?" asks Freeman with mild surprise. It's clear that Freeman—ever so subtly—is wondering what on earth she saw in him.

"He was the funniest guy I ever met," Paltrow continues.

"Really?" Freeman asks again. Many performers would have milked the comedy here, by looking and sounding deeply incredulous. But Freeman delivers the line with a subdued mutter. Coming from him, that "really" is a quiet discovery, an almost cosmic acceptance that someone should love this young firebrand.

Thanks more to casting than inspired acting, Pitt's right on the money, too. When Freeman advises him to read up on the classics (Dante, Chaucer, etc.) Pitt buys the Cliffs Notes. He pronounces the Marquis de Sade, as if that sadistic scribe were the father of the Nigerian jazz singer, Sade. "Just 'cause the guy's got a library card," Pitt complains of the killer, "doesn't make him Yoda."

Unfortunately, screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker's finale, in addition to its grossness, feels like an act of treachery against the viewer. It undoes the limited faith we've invested in the story. And Pitt is ironically dead-right when he tells the killer "You're no messiah, you're a movie of the week. You're a [bleep] T-shirt at best." At that point, it's hard to know whether to commend this movie for showing us interesting people, or to damn it for using great characters to sucker us into watching more bloodletting.

SEVEN (R) — Contains graphic violence, brief male nudity and horrifying autopsy footage.

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