David Fincher, whose brilliant career as a director of music videos encompassed such highs and lows as Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and Rick Springfield’s “Bop ‘Til You Drop,” has helmed an almost overly stylish thriller about the evil that men do and the myriad ways to punish them. And this thriller is so unlikely on its surface that when the machine kicks into high gear and the characters really start to matter to us, its impact seems all-encompassing and lingers for days after viewing.

So, whether we like it or not, we’ve got SE7EN to keep us company at night. That’s not a typo — that’s how the title appears on-screen, flickering white on black during the opening sequence as though scratched directly on the film, while a remix of “Closer” throbs on the soundtrack. We’re brought full-circle a couple of hours later, when the credits roll backwards as “The Heart’s Filthy Lesson” blares in digital stereo, releasing us to the open air outside this hermetic little nightmare. It’s obvious that Fincher has mastered the fine art of creating a mood.

Working from a script that flaunts a fashionable proclivity toward the grotesque, Fincher fashions a mean little movie about sin, the city, free will, and the most grotesque notions of justice. Fincher’s feature debut was the ambitious Alien3, a cerebral, nearly charmless meditation on bodies and alienation that was reviled by fans of Aliens, James Cameron’s space fantasy about marines with big guns. The follow-up became an unprecedented popular success, making serious bank at the box office thanks in large part to a more conventional genre premise and the presence of two big Hollywood guns — Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt.

The story is conveniently (but rather pointlessly, as it turns out) divided into days of the week. Pitt is Mills, the new detective on the force. Freeman is Somerset, the mentor who’s trying to ease the younger cop into the bowels of the city while defusing his impatience. Near the film’s beginning, the corpse of a grossly overweight man is found in a dark room, face down in a heaping bowl of pasta that he was fed from until his insides ruptured. Behind the fridge: the word GLUTTONY is scrawled on the wall. Soon after, police discover the body of a rich and prominent defense attorney who has literally been bled dry. Writ in large letters of grue on the carpet: GREED. Somerset is onto this one right away — gluttony and greed are two of the seven deadly sins. The killer of both men, he surmises, is an intelligent psychopath who intends to continue his grisly ways until all seven sins have been illustrated in a fashion that may put you off your popcorn. The two go after the killer, Mills’ brash style countered by the wary, jaded technique of Somerset (who is, natch, set to retire at the end of the week).

The screenplay, by a fellow named Andrew Kevin Walker who supposedly got his nastiest ideas while working at Tower Records in Manhattan (hell, I believe it), isn’t much on the surface, just a whole bunch of musings about moral vigilantism and the absence of goodness and light in urban America tempered by the buddy-buddy banter of the two cops. There’s even a thankless role for the cop’s wife, Tracy — Gwyneth Paltrow, very fine in a small role — and an unlikely breakthrough that puts the cops right on the killer’s tail at the beginning of the second act. But in Fincher’s hands, it sure works. The director’s aesthetic, which remits for not even a single shot of this film, lends not just urgency but an almost classical darkness and beauty to its various harrowing sequences. (SE7EN gets its distinctive visual tone from photochemical processes that restore contrast to the darkest scenes; now that such effects can be rendered with fewer headaches and far less expense in the digital domain, it’s unlikely that there will ever be another movie that looks quite like this one.) If the Batman movies were being made with the sensibility of Frank Miller, that character’s darkest comic-pages interpreter, they might look something like this — here’s a thriller with a visual impact so tremendous that it can get away with some shamelessly outrĂ© melodrama.

It’s hard to detect exactly how the whole becomes something bigger than the sum of its parts, but SE7EN‘s eventual impact is undeniably seismic. Straight-arrow performances by Pitt, Freeman and an unbilled Kevin Spacey — does he have it in him to ever turn in another performance that shows such a lack of concern about being liked? — give the film its terrible sense of conviction, miraculous cinematography in the near dark by Darius Khondji gives it a Boschian vigor, and a swirling, enveloping sound mix contributes to the dazzling and deeply disquieting movie experience. Fincher puts me in the palm of his hand about halfway through, when the film’s deft centerpiece — an extended chase scene riddled by gunfire and shafts of sunlight — breaks the tension of the long exposition. The killer leaps over barriers and ducks in and out of shadows like the phantom of the opera, and Finch distills that neo-Gothic atmosphere without clogging up the works. The relationship between cops and killer becomes very real, and almost mythic in its implications, and SE7EN goes from there like a greased pig.

At the climax, screenwriter Walker confronts these two good cops with one humdinger of a bad situation. There’s a palpable sense as the story winds down that something very real is at stake — you feel like you could cut the tension in that golden desert air with a knife — and the movie’s ultimate moral structure seems to extend into the world outside like a fog. As pessimistic as SE7EN ultimately becomes, it’s refreshing in its belief in something larger than the typical bogus moral dilemma. Because the movie believes in its mission, the climax is likely to resonate in your head for hours, perhaps days after viewing. Searching for meaning in the world it creates, SE7EN finds the dark heart of the soul and pokes at it ’til it bursts. A

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