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‘Seven’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 22, 1995

"Seven," a grisly social allegory drawn in blood and spawned in despair, casts a lingering, malodorous spell. A buddy-cop thriller recast as Dante's sojourn in Hell, this graphic, allusion-littered film stands the conventions of the genre on end—along with the viewer's hair. Sitting through it, if God is just, should count as penance for our sins—including Thomas Aquinas's seven deadly no-nos.

These transgressions—gluttony, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and wrath—may seem tame in comparison with the diabolical whimsy of an unmotivated drive-by shooting. But they nevertheless inflame the miswired brain of the film's resident serial killer, who appoints himself to avenge humankind's sins.

Like the John Malkovich freak in "In the Line of Fire," this mad genius is essentially a fun-house mirror image of the film's hero. Here, the bad guy and the good guy—Lt. Somerset (Morgan Freeman)—have become convinced that society is morally bankrupt. They just have different ways of coping with it.

Somerset is a burned-out homicide detective, about to retire, when he's obliged to break in a macho replacement, Lt. Mills (Brad Pitt, impressive in his latest departure from stud roles). Somerset no longer believes that he's making a difference, but Mills is a pup raring to take a bite out of crime. And if need be, he'll break the law to do it. Despite their disparate styles and early antipathy, the two men must work together to solve a series of increasingly horrific murders.

In each case, the killer exacts a fitting retribution upon his victim: An obese man is forced to eat SpaghettiO's until his stomach bursts. A defense attorney is compelled to cut a pound of flesh from his own body. The killer, whose plans are more complex than the partners imagine, leaves clues at every murder scene—drawing the detectives ever deeper into his ghastly underworld.

It may be stretching a metaphor to suggest that Somerset is a 20th-century Virgil leading Mills's Dante through the circles of Hell, and toward redemption. But writer Andrew Kevin Walker is obviously no stranger to the "The Divine Comedy," just as director David Fincher is clearly into the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Under their stewardship, "Seven" is a decidedly medieval enterprise, darker in text and tone than a Gothic cathedral by the light of the moon.

Walker, a cashier at Tower Records when he penned the screenplay, drew on the depressing day-to-day of New York City, which becomes a nonspecific Big Rotten Apple as depicted by Fincher. A former music video director, Fincher cloaked his first film, "Aliens3," in the same bleeding colors and oppressive gloom. Each crime is designed to reflect the victim's sins, but the shadows are often so thick that the finer points of the set are lost along with the clues. Sometimes the film is so murky, you have to wonder: Is it art, or did Fincher just forget to pay the electric bill?

This is a blessing, though, for viewers repelled by cockroaches feasting on cadavers and buckets of bloody vomit. These filmmakers are unflinching in their macabre vision. "Seven" leaves little to the imagination. Fittingly, there are warnings along the way that the viewer's patience and sympathy will not be repaid. Somerset, the weary stoic as played by Freeman, comes straight out with it: "This isn't going to have a happy ending. It's not possible."

Seven is rated R for profanity, nudity and violence.

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