'Seven': a hell of a good film

WHERE is David Fincher's serial-killer thriller Seven (18) set? The gaudy skyscrapers, viewed in the odd aerial-shot that Fincher allows to punctuate the movie's smothering interiors, remind you of New York, as do the lurid yellow taxi-cabs. Or, given the pervasive gloom and driving rain that weigh down every frame of the film, it might be Gotham City: the comic-book Manhattan that twisted the city's gothic side towards the grotesque. Yet, early on, we see a news-stand, carrying copies of the National Globe and the Daily Herald. You won't find these titles in New York, or even in America. It is part of Seven's grand design that its location could be any modern city, any sprawling urban hell. The darkest film ever to become a blockbuster, Seven is about hell on earth. That river that winds its way through the movie's rotten city may not be the Hudson, but the Styx.

The plot is diabolically, disgustingly clever. A serial killer is working on a "masterpiece": seven murders matched to the seven deadly sins, each sin represented by one of the victims. The film is full of graphic crime scenes, but few actual crimes (like the cops, we're always a step behind the murderer). The first body is the vast, whale-like corpse of a man forced to eat until he bursts: Gluttony. The art direction is horribly realistic: the vast cadaver has a marmoreal whiteness, interrupted by veiny blotches. Next a rich lawyer is bled to death, the word "GREED" written in blood on his carpet. Still more gruesome is the sloth victim, kept alive, manacled to a bed for a year, until his bones begin to push through his skin.

This summary may already have put some readers off seeing the movie; and I have met people who regard Seven as a nadir in American film, tawdry and sensationalist. There is no denying that Seven is a deeply unpleasant movie. But I believe it is a fine one, too. It doesn't glory in its depravity, but keeps a distance from it. It is very Hitchcockian in its suspense and pessimism. But unlike Hitch, it opens its harsh view of humanity up to debate. Its ambivalence is reflected in the opposed outlooks of the two cops investigating the killings. Morgan Freeman plays a humane, intelligent, but disillusioned veteran, in the week of his retirement, convinced the city is in ugly decline ("I don't understand this place any longer"). Brad Pitt plays his eager new colleague, who has a battered, can-do optimism, certain all that is needed is the arrest of a few nut-cases. These two cops are a pulp version of Sense and Sensibility. Significantly, Pitt is married (to the troubled Gwyneth Paltrow), while Freeman is not. We cut between Freeman alone in bed and Pitt cuddling up to his wife. Hope in this movie is a body to cling on to. It would spoil the brilliant climax to indicate how the debate is resolved, except to say that the film is appallingly thorough in working out its theme.

David Fincher's direction is daringly extreme. Scarcely a scene passes that is not shrouded in gloom or awash with rain; dingy browns and greens predominate. Despite sometimes wondering why nobody turns on a light, you get accustomed surprisingly quickly to Fincher's oppressive vision - to seeing in the dark. Fincher, who cast a rusty pall over his previous film, Alien3, is here following up the killer's own obsession with Milton - Darkness Visible might have been an alternative title. Even more exceptional is Fincher's camerawork, dazzlingly varied yet rigorously precise. In one great scene, his camera takes in the library where Freeman seeks to emulate the killer's erudition, switching angles, gliding through what comes to seem like a burnished, forgotten world of civilisation. Bach plays on the soundtrack, as we flip through ancient book illustrations of mutilation and death. The scene flirts, knowingly, with the same monstrous fallacy that The Silence of the Lambs laid bare: the idea of murder as art.

We have grown accustomed to the excellence of Morgan Freeman. Here his resonant voice, so redolent of humanity, helps offset the harshness of his character's vision. More unexpected is Brad Pitt. He may be technically inferior to many of his peers, but he has that mysterious screen chemistry that amounts to stardom - a sort of unwavering energy and self-belief. Pitt is clearly no great brain, but intelligence can be a handicap for a star. Pitt's unreflective persona here fits a character that has more spirit than nous. Pitt's real-life partner, Gwyneth Paltrow, packs wonderful detail into her few scenes as his screen wife - a former high-school sweetheart, who is as nervily high-strung as she is beautiful and warm-hearted. The actor who plays the criminal mastermind (whose name I've been asked by the distributors not to reveal) combines the arrogant genius of the devil with an even-toned melancholy.

Debutant screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker shouldn't be excluded from this paean, though you will boggle at the murk of his mind. His script can verge on parody, as when a book of the killer's writings reveals his fundamentalist fulminations against humanity ("We are not what was intended"); and it doesn't wholly avoid portentousness. But he succeeds in engaging us in an apocalyptic debate at the same time as glueing us to our seats. Aided by Fincher's unremittingly bleak direction, he gives society a vision worthy of its sickness.

I do not normally recommend four-and-a-half-hour Danish movies (or even see them), but Lars Von Trier's The Kingdom (no certificate), now showing at London's ICA, is a resounding exception. Set in a haunted hospital, on ancient marshland, it has the pull of a soap, the snap of a farce and the ghoulishness of a horror story. Originally shown on Danish TV, The Kingdom's nearest equivalent is Twin Peaks. But Von Trier's ideas are more coherent. He introduces us to his grotesque gallery of characters with ease and economy: the vain, charlatan Swedish consultant neurosurgeon, his frog-like face set in a permanent scowl, who rails at his Danish colleagues, letting off steam by getting a glimpse of his native land from the roof, and yelling "Danish scum!"; the hospital controller, whose breezy manner may mask malignity, and who heads the hospital's hilarious Masonic lodge; the junior colleague who plays God with the hospital resources, redistributing the cocaine from eye-drops; the sinister obsessed pathologist; a malingering old woman, psychically in touch with a girl brutally killed at the hospital in 1919.

There are times when the bleak humour, matched by a caustic amber tint to the images, feels like facile nihilism. But Von Trier uses the satire to put forward radical ideas, suggesting we should spend as much time tending the spirit as we do the body. His film is set on the borders of medicine and ethics, the body and the spirit, Denmark and Sweden, television and film, talent and genius. It ends with some Grand Guignol, and a caption reading: "To Be Continued." Amazingly, we can't wait.

The Horseman on the Roof (15), the latest from Jean-Paul Rappeneau (director of Cyrano de Bergerac), is a handsome, sprawling period drama, set in 1830s Provence. An exiled Italian cavalryman (Olivier Martinez) travels through the countryside, braving a cholera epidemic, and linking with the one other calm soul in these frenzied times, a noble woman played by Juliette Binoche. Rappeneau gives the screen the ripeness and bloom of an Impressionist canvas, whether depicting al fresco dinners in Aix- en-Provence, or the bodies of the afflicted by the dusty roadside. But his pictorialism misses the hallucinatory dance with death of Jean Giono's 1951 novel. Not helped by self-absorbed performances, the film only hints at the mysteries of its central characters: her strange gentility and restraint; his mixture of swash and safety. For all the startling images - the pair lighting spirits on their hands, to disinfect them; Binoche's equally blazing smile - it is hard to see Rappeneau's reason for making the movie. Though acute on the herd-like panic set off by disease (as seen with Aids), it's mainly just a good yarn.

Full marks to All Men are Mortal (15) for ambition; none for execution. This adaptation of Simone de Beauvoir's novel about a 1940s French actress (Irene Jacob) who falls for a man who has been alive for 700 years (Stephen Rea), is hopelessly miscast: the enigmatic Jacob is too reserved for the flamboyant performer; Rea looks too contemporary. De Beauvoir's ideas about feeling and familiarity, being and experiencing, aren't expressed visually, and so come across as wordily pretentious.

The decline of Julia Roberts (and of director Lasse Hallstrom) continues in Something to Talk About (15), in which she plays a wife who refuses to take her man (Dennis Quaid) back after he commits adultery. The script, by Callie Thelma and Louise Khourie, pulls its feminist punches right at the end.

Cinema details: Review, page 76.