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EMPIRE ESSAY: Se7en Review

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Police drama about two cops, one new and one about to retire, after a serial killer using the seven deadly sins as his MO.

★★★★★

When accepting the Empire readers' Best Film award, self-deprecating screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker said of Seven, "We thought it was just a pretentious slasher movie." And he ought to know because he went on to write Joel Schumacher's 8MM, which was just a pretentious slasher movie. Though it turned out to be the step beyond The Silence Of The Lambs that kept the flagging serial killer genre alive, Walker originally scripted Seven (or Se7en as the title appears on screen) as a low-budgeter along the lines of his work on video rental rack-fillers Brainscan (1994) or Hideaway (1995). This time gleefully exploring the Agatha Christiesque high concept (prefigured by the Belgian horror film Devil's Nightmare) of a string of murders based around the seven deadly sins.
The film became a more substantial project with the input of David Fincher, redeeming himself after the shaky directing of Alien 3.

Fincher, the major turn-of-the-millennium filmmaker, would develop the visual and thematic material of Seven in the underrated The Game (1997) and the near-masterpiece Fight Club (1999). He emphasises eerie nuances and character quirks over plot mechanics, with powerful assistance from Darius Khondji's cinematography (silvery rain and gray shadows) and the jagged editing of Richard Francis-Bruce (both taking cues from a distinctive and much-imitated title sequence designed by Kyle Cooper).

Together with Howard Shore's music and the slightly cesspool stylised performances, the effect is of a film that takes place at one remove from reality. Though set in the present day, the peripherals (typewriters, gramophone records) are slightly old-fashioned, while other design elements (police cars, uniforms) take a step towards the retro-noir style of Blade Runner or Lars von Trier's The Element Of Crime, transforming an unnamed, rainswept, desert-surrounded city into an annex of Hell.

The storyline goes beyond unlikely into deliberate realms of metaphysics, where a serial killer's elaborate spree — he has spent over a year setting up a plot apparently designed to warp the mind of a man he can only have been aware of for a week — is as much a philosophical exploration as a mad crime, intended to convince the cops on the case that the world is an infernal cesspool. Soon-to-retire homicide detective William Somerset (Freeman) and his idealistic but hotheaded replacement David Mills (Pitt) spend the last seven days of Somerset's career investigating a series of sin-themed murders: a hugely obese man forced to eat until his stomach bursts; a greedy lawyer made to slice off a pound of flesh, a slothful drug addict left tied to a bed for a year; a lustful hooker murdered by a John with a razor-edged dildo (the manufacturer mistook the killer for "a performance artist"); a vain woman mutilated and given the choice between survival as a mutilated freak or suicide.

The last two sins are taken care of in the finale as the envious killer "John Doe" (Spacey) reveals that he has decapitated Mills' pregnant wife Tracy (Paltrow) and Express-mailed the head to a desert location. The punchline, a despairing rewrite of the summary execution and badge-tossing of Dirty Harry, is that the wrathful Mills destroys his own soul ("David, if you kill him, he will win") in empty vengeance by gunning down Doe according to his demented plan.

Make-up supremo Rob Bottin creates truly hideous victims, Fincher cops a shock trick from the obscure 1981 zombie movie Dead And Buried as one apparent corpse turns out to be alive, and there's a Blade Runner-style chase-through-the-rainy-streets mid-way through the film to get some actual action on screen. But Fincher actually avoids acts of violence in favour of acts of investigation as the cops prowl the crime scenes and hit the libraries (when Somerset gives Mills a reading list of Chaucer and Dante, the younger man gets hold of Cliff Notes) trying to piece together the mind of the murderer.

In a lovely, paranoid touch, they get near Doe because the FBI has been secretly and illegally monitoring the library loans of every nutjob in the country. The message of all the killing is that the world is a truly vile place, and in their different ways both cops are forced to accept John Doe's awful argument. As the shattered Detective Mills is driven away, Somerset's voice-over muses, "Ernest Hemingway once wrote, 'The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.' I agree with the second part."

Superb modern horror with a twist to die for.