'Seven': a hell of a good film

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition