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PARTLY TRUE GRIT

In the cold, gray, unnamed city where David Fincher's bloody thriller Seven takes place, it's always raining. There's a coating of grime on every door lock and lampshade, the coffee cups are all chipped and smudged, and every dark staircase in every tenement is collapsing. So is the tenement. All the pieces of machinery we see, from cop cars to typewriters, look old, dirty and tired.

Just in case we still don't get Fincher's shopworn vision of a world in moral decay--The Wasteland and Taxi Driver rolled into one gloomy ball of sludge--his entire city's electricity also seems to have failed. Whenever the movie's two grim, dog-tired homicide detectives--world-weary Morgan Freeman and scruffy Brad Pitt--arrive at a crappy apartment where someone has been gruesomely murdered (something they do a lot), they've got to use their big, clunky police flashlights to cut through the murk, the palpable corruption of the place.

For all its heavy, hell-on-earth atmospherics, though, Seven is pretty lightweight, conventional stuff. Writer Andrew Kevin Walker, who worked on this script while managing a New York record store, has disinterred one of the oldest mug shots in the files--the brainy serial killer who imagines himself an avenging angel and tortures his victims, sometimes at great length, in some rather inventive ways. Walker then has paired up two familiar cop types to make chase--the stately old fox who's seen too much street and will retire at the end of the week (Freeman's William Somerset) and the brash, eager kid who likes to kick doors in (Pitt's David Mills, decorated with an angry little tuft of beard). To be fair, there's some payoff in what first seems the standard collision of ill-matched partners: Once the cops figure out that their clever killer-fiend is reproducing the Seven Deadly Sins (yes, that again), wise, plodding old Somerset heads straight for the library to unearth clues from Chaucer and Dante, while hotheaded Mills tosses his new Cliffs Notes aside with a curse. In microcosm and deep in the stationhouse, here's the current argument between cultural literacy and the MTV generation.

That's about as far as such things go, however. Director Fincher got his start doing Nike and Levi's commercials before moving on to rock videos for Madonna and Aerosmith, then made his feature debut with the dismal Alien 3. Clearly, he's as obsessed with surfaces and style as his writer is. Twenty minutes in, you can't help seeing these two as a couple of kids thrilled by all that make-believe blood and gore. But when it comes to really tackling the issues they claim to be taking on--urban morality, police ethics and some other grownup stuff--they quickly slip out of their depth. Freeman, ever the consummate professional, puts in a fine, well-measured performance as the courtly, intellectual cop who's finally had enough of life in the sewer. And Pitt can preen with the best of them. But Seven seems far more interested in slasher-flick shocks like the contorted body of a woman whose nose has been gouged off or a naked, 400-pound glutton dead at the table with his face in a bowl of spaghetti than it does in making much of its cops' deeper motives, or even its killer's.

Imagine The Silence of the Lambs without much texture, dark humor or Jodie Foster--without much underlying intelligence--and you've got a fix on this occasionally scary but essentially hollow piece of work. Fincher and Walker may think they're involved in all sorts of deep thinking--you can tell that when the deranged killer (no fair telling) literally takes them for a ride and presumes to explain how the world really works. But the bloodthirsty adolescents inside these filmmakers are always overpowering the budding intellects. By the way, can you imagine Hannibal Lecter going for a nice drive in the country with Clarice Starling in order to clarify his view of the world? Can you imagine Clarice falling for it? Did Clint Eastwood go for a bike ride with John Malkovich that time in Los Angeles?

While we briefly ponder those questions, Fincher lays on some additional heaps of grimy 1984-ish gloom, as well as some of the most interesting sound effects in any recent movie. To wit: None of these characters--not even Mills's pretty young wife, Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), can lay their head down on a pillow without raised voices from down in the street or the rumble of an elevated train invading their privacy. City life is hard, violent and unpredictable, in case you haven't noticed, and these moviemakers certainly want you to notice.

Meanwhile, Somerset tries to sleep with a metronome ticking away on his nightstand--as much to remind himself that the long battle's almost over as to drown out the noise of his demons. Very nice touch.

As an exercise in style, Seven gets all kinds of high marks, from the jittery, vaguely nightmarish opening credits, to the scum-of-the-city scenes that have Scorsese written all over them, to the dreamy, Antonioni-esque finale in a nearby desert crisscrossed by high-tension towers, where we find out how the killer means to complete his lethal sequence. Here's a movie that always catches our eye--just like a Nike spot is supposed to--but it falls awfully short making commentary on society's woes, the nature of evil or the specifics of psychopathy. The blood flows freely, and there are some very tense moments as the cops close in on the killer (or he upon them). But Greed, Envy, Lust and Wrath (what else you got?) have all seen better days at the movies.

 
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