In "Seven," a grim urban environment is rocked by horrible murders, each more gruesome than the last and each with strong ties to the local library. It seems that the killer, showily conversant with Dante, Milton, Chaucer and no doubt Agatha Christie, has devised an orderly string of crimes that deliver a collective message. Each one interprets a deadly sin in terms that smack of Hannibal Lecter. Pride: A beautiful model is butchered, with her nose cut off to spite her face. Et cetera.
In case these crimes, however disgustingly rendered, are not formulaic enough, "Seven" also throws in two familiar detective types: the brash new guy (Brad Pitt), and the steady-handed veteran who is on the verge of leaving the force (Morgan Freeman). The new guy has a loving, patient wife (Gwyneth Paltrow), and so the film treats her in ways you wouldn't treat a dog. As for the veteran, if you guess that he has only one week to go before retirement, naturally you're right.
Although the director, David Fincher (with a strong track record in rock video), and the screenwriter, Andrew Kevin Walker (inspired to write "Seven" while working as a clerk at Tower Records), borrow so many familiar elements for their story, they seem determined to give it an uncommonly nasty spin. So the crime scenes are rendered in sickening detail, and the whole film has a murky, madly pretentious tone. Visually, the effect is that of spending a long time looking at a bowl of oatmeal on a rainy day. Only during its last scenes does the film brighten, partly because of the actor who is revealed as the killer and partly because the action finally moves outdoors in broad daylight.
Mr. Freeman moves sagely through "Seven" with the air of one who has seen it all and will surely be seeing something better very soon. His performance has just the kind of polish and self-possession that his co-star, Mr. Pitt, seems determined to avoid. Demonstrating an eighth sin by frittering away an enormously promising career, Mr. Pitt walks through this film looking rumpled and nonchalant, mumbling his lines with hip diffidence to spare. He remains too detached to show much enthusiasm, except for times when the screenplay begins moralizing about what a sick world we live in. Films like this one and, say, "Kalifornia" aren't making it any better.
"Seven" is also notable for an excessive running time and a lot of shrill or rumbling sound effects that deliver more jolts than the action can. Not even bags of body parts, a bitten-off tongue or a man forced to cut off a pound of his own flesh (think "The Merchant of Venice") keep it from being dull.