Seven, the eerie new homicide thriller, has a tantalizingly morbid atmosphere of unease. Early on, a couple of cops Morgan Freeman as a veteran on the brink of retirement, and Brad Pitt as his new, hotshot partner wander into an abandoned shack and find the corpse of an obese shut-in, his legs bound to a chair, his face smooshed down in a plate of spaghetti. (Apparently, he was force-fed to death.) The scene practically reeks of depravity and rot. In Seven, just about every setting (alleyways, apartments, even a public library) is squalid and cluttered and muffled in shadow, and the streets are drenched in a continual brackish rainfall. The visual moodiness is matched by aural moodiness: The characters' words emerge quietly, from a soundtrack thick with cacophonous murk. We're never quite sure what city we're in is it Philadelphia? one of New York's outer boroughs? and this casual dislocation enhances our free-floating sense of dread. Directed by David Fincher, who made the underrated Alien3 Seven is a suspense film that works to keep the audience off balance, sifting through the darkness for clues and portents. And the images that emerge are not pretty ones.
In nowhere city, a serial killer is slaughtering people according to a playfully fiendish pattern: He commits one murder for each of the seven deadly sins, each victim offered as a hideous ''atonement.'' The fat guy was, of course, killed for gluttony. A rich lawyer dies for greed. And so on. The movie's perverse hook is the gruesomely clever way in which the style of each murder matches the sin (by the time the killer gets to lust, you may be lowering your eyes in shock). Since the mystery psycho is, naturally, a mastermind, he toys with the cops, leaving clues on purpose and, at one point, staging a trick so ghoulish a ''corpse'' starts to cough that it leaves the audience laughing with fright. The killer also has a literary turn of mind. Inspired by Dante, Shakespeare, and other navigators of man's eternal fall, he creates a private liturgical fantasy out of the scrunginess of the human race. Everyone's a sinner! The world must be punished!
The deadly sins premise of Seven is actually rather corny; it's like something out of a Clive Barker potboiler. Fincher has a trancelike style, but his film's lavish hallucinatory gloom can't quite hide the gimmickiness of the plot the fact that we're watching two cops pursue a killer with the most organized murder agenda since Ten Little Indians. The deviant psychology here is really Mickey Mouse stuff compared with anything in The Silence of the Lambs or its brilliant prequel, Manhunter. And there are cheap plot developments, like a coffee shop scene with Freeman and Gwyneth Paltrow (as Pitt's wife) that's so gratuitous you can tell it's being planted for later use, or the fact that the villain is identified through his library card (wouldn't an obsessive like this one want to buy his books?). For all that, the movie holds you in its grip, exploiting our collective fascination with serial killers as modern homicidal mystics.
Seven is a heebie-jeebies thriller, the kind people will go to for a good, cathartic creep-out. The credits sequence, with its jumpy frames and near-subliminal flashes of psycho paraphernalia, is a small masterpiece of dementia the film itself seems to be breaking down in terror. Fincher has lifted a lot of tricks from Manhunter, but the canniest was to reveal just enough clinical carnage so that we re-create the details of the killings in our heads. Balancing out the sleek horror are Freeman and Pitt, who, within a stock old cop-young cop routine, spark each other. Freeman plays nearly every scene in a doleful hush; he makes you lean in to hear his words, to ferret out the hints of anger and regret that haunt this weary knight. It's Pitt's job to blow his cool, which he does with energized grunge charisma, and to act as comic relief (I actually believed his hilarious mispronunciation of the Marquis de Sade).
Eventually we meet the killer, whose plan is even fancier than we suspected. This is the most grandiose part of Seven, and it might have been a leap into suspense-movie banality were the killer not played by Kevin Spacey, a devious ham who uses his aging little-boy face to hypnotic deadpan effect. He's like the world's most demonic sissy. The climactic sequence is powered by a visual coup Fincher takes the movie out of gloomsville and into a sun-dappled field of electric wires but mostly by Spacey's mischievous core of masochism. It's Seven's nastiest stroke of wit that, by the end, what he wants and what the audience wants turn out to be one and the same. B