Seven is another crime story that leans heavily on atmosphere. But this nerve-jangling thriller, evocatively shot by Darius Khondji, is no period piece. Set in an unnamed modern city deluged by rain and eroded by decay, the film stars Brad Pitt as David Mills, a can-do detective just in from the sticks with his wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), to replace Lt. William Somerset (Morgan Freeman), a soul-sick cop ready to pack it in after 34 years of chasing scumbags.
The case that brings the two together is a John Doe serial killer who bases his murders on the seven deadly sins. For gluttony, a fatso is forced to eat until he bursts. For pride, a model is brutally disfigured. And so on through greed, sloth and lust. Envy and wrath are paired up for a twisted, gut-wrenching climax.
Andrew Kevin Walker wrote the script while working at Tower Records in Manhattan. But don't take this skin crawler of a mood piece for pulp escapism. Pitt drops the movie star glamour as a stubbly hothead. Freeman, an actor of consummate subtlety, plays the cooler hand. They make a fine, fierce team. Only a dinner organized by Tracy (the gifted Paltrow is underused) takes the chill off the two cops. Later, Tracy confides in William why she's afraid to tell her husband she's pregnant. It's a rare nod to sentiment. Humor is also scarce, though Pitt's barely literate cop gets a big laugh when he pronounces the Marquis de Sade as "Shar-day."
Seven wants to abrade, not ingratiate. Director David Fincher got hammered for turning Alien 3, his feature debut, from a monster mash into an AIDS parable. That's what happens when you aim high in Hollywood: You're labeled pretentious. Fincher is not entirely blameless. Characters are sometimes merely attitudes posing as people. And the request that critics refrain from revealing who plays John Doe (OK, I won't tell, but it's a superactor, not a superstar) smacks of gimmickry. It's not the identity of the killer that gives Seven its kick — it's the way Fincher raises mystery to the level of moral provocation. If Pulp Fiction has given us a taste for such challenge, then we have Tarantino to thank instead of blame.