It is rare to see a film where Gwyneth Paltrow is the least problematic cast member, but next to Kevin Spacey and Morgan Freeman, 1995 thriller SE7EN (pronounced as 2 syllables as opposed to 4) makes her seem almost virtuous.
David Fincher’s Seven is the cat-and-mouse tale of two detectives (Freeman and Brad Pitt) and a serial killer (Spacey) punishing his victims using the 7 deadly sins; force-feeding a glutton, torturing a sloth etc. On the face of it this is another case of high-concept homicide gimmickry, familiar from the Shakespearean killing spree in Theatre of Blood to the Village People-themed victims of You Can’t Stop the Murders. But as in Heat the same year, the clichés are elevated by an ambience that burrows under your skin like an invasive facial procedure advertised on Goop.
Continuing his penchant for stylised numeric titles, the ALIEN³ director creates the noiriest neo-noir this side of Blade Runner. He saturates the hell out of (or possibly into) the unnamed city, drowned in constant rain and traffic noise. By showing us the mutilated aftermath of John Doe’s crimes we are forced to imagine the acts themselves, lending the feature a disturbing psychological quality. Having started out shooting music videos (most notably Madonna’s Vogue), Fincher is basically the American Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Under The Skin, Jamiroquai’s Virtual Insanity).
There is no fat on the two-hour runtime, only a single scene (Paltrow telling near-stranger Freeman about her pregnancy before her husband) that wants cutting. Paltrow is simpering and her character little more than a plot device, and yet still her best role thanks to the HedEx ending. As for Spacey, if he was to get any creepier it would literally be criminal. The refreshingly efficient detectives revel in their Mississippi Burning dynamic: Freeman the elder, bringing his usual gravitas to proceedings; Pitt the younger, so watchable he manages to alleviate much of the picture’s misery. (Spoiler alert: if his acting at the end is him imagining Paltrow’s actual death, you can see why they broke up).
The suspense builds unbearably to an overwritten and overscored climax (Howard Shore delivers the musical goods) that works even when you know it’s coming, just like Fincher’s Fight Club a few years later. Impeccably constructed and dark as sin, Seven is one of the great serial killer flicks, its influence stretching from Saw to True Detective and beyond. When John Doe brags that his crimes are “going to be puzzled over and studied and followed,” it sounds delusional. But the current obsession with True Crime bears out the movie’s bleak conclusion: that he has won.