Nihilism is a rare quality in popular cinema, especially in these New Age days. I shall never forget Oprah Winfrey's hilarious TV special on Interview with the Vampire (1994), where she berated Tom Cruise at length for participating in such a "negative" and "life denying" film.
When a nihilistic movie does appear – often in an unexpected genre – it can have the quality of a bracing tonic. Truly black films such as the teen drama River's Edge (1986) quickly gather a cult following, as if they offered a precious antidote to the great mass of anodyne entertainments.
Oprah would have a heart seizure watching Seven (whose title is sometimes rendered, with respect to its graphic design in the credits, as Se7en). This bleak thriller is disconcerting in the extreme. With its familiar situation of a mad-genius serial killer tracked by a pair of cops, it will remind many viewers of Jonathan Demme's hit The Silence of the Lambs (1991). But that film, in retrospect, is a veritable feel-good tract in comparison with Seven.
In this story, the killer holds all the cards. A series of hideous murders, some involving intricately gruesome torture rituals, begin to be discovered around New York. Each murder scene is adorned with a single word – lust, sloth, gluttony, and so on.
It quickly becomes apparent that these crimes are constructed almost like medieval, allegorical tableaux – complete with signs to be decoded, and a twisted, fundamentalist moral lesson to be learnt.
The killer's reduction of life and death to a kind of encrypted semiological puzzle recalls David Lynch's Twin Peaks series, where letters of the alphabet were found under the fingernails of victims. Yet Seven denies its audience even Lynch's safety-valve of black, flip humour. It is far closer in tone to Michael Mann's spooky, underrated Manhunter (1986), the forerunner to The Silence of the Lambs.
There are characters in this tale but they are almost secondary, cipher-like. Morgan Freeman is in fine, brooding, world-weary form as Somerset, a cop itching to retire. He realises that, to crack the case, he must enter into a chilling symbiosis with the killer's prodigious intellectual imagination. Elaborate sequences of the film shows Somerset's self-education in the art and literature devoted to the seven deadly sins.
Brad Pitt is a problem. As the young, rookie cop Mills, he gives a lazy, ranting performance. The role, as written by Andrew Kevin Walker, does not help him. Every time that Somerset stresses the devious brilliance of the killer, Mills hops up and down shouting: "But he's a freak! A pervert! A wacko!" It soon becomes a wearying buddy-cop routine, one of the film's few unimaginative elements.
The distinctive attributes of Seven are its style and its sensibility – and the two are indissoluble. Director David Fincher (Alien3, 1992) creates a remarkable evocation, in sound and light, of a world going straight to hell. The harsh noise of the city filters into every interior, overpowering any sane human contact. All urban spaces look like garbage dumps, dank and dusty.
There are moments (especially in the superb opening credits) where Seven becomes so chaotic, impressionistic and abstract in its rapid stream of visual and aural sensations that it resembles an avant-garde experimental film. This was, for me, its greatest pleasure.
But there is more to this spectacle than mere ornamentation. Ultimately, Seven explores a grim philosophy that returns us, with a jolt, to the philosophical Naturalism of Erich von Stroheim's silent masterpieces such as Foolish Wives (1922). This philosophy holds that people are essentially base and animalistic, and that civilisation is a fragile victory snatched from the jaws of ever-looming barbarism.
This may not be a reassuring message for a star-studded American thriller to peddle, but it certainly makes for unsettling and absorbing viewing.
© Adrian Martin November 1995