Imagine a Gotham with no Batman and you get the dystopian horror of Se7en. With a setting that parallels the Weimar Berlin of Fritz Lang's M, the sustained darkness of Se7en brings no salvation, a city drenched in rain and gloom (but with an awesome library).
While the megalomaniac serial killer has been a staple of American movies since Michael Mann's Manhunter and Jonathan Demme's sequel The Silence of the Lambs, which both offered style and post-modern thrills, Se7en is more philosophical. It's a metaphysical crime story.
The set up is the classic buddy cop formula, a seasoned pro and the young hot shot working a case. Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is a week away from retirement. Then a new series of bizarre murders begins to obsess him, so he stays on longer. Somerset is melancholy and fatalistic, still fighting the good fight as he mentors his replacement Mills. Mills (Brad Pitt) is courageous and willing to learn, but will be outsmarted again and again by the killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey). He's in way over his head.
As each murder appears more pre-meditated, Somerset and Mills tie the killings to Dante's Inferno, each one a punishment for the seven deadly sins. Mills keeps thinking the killer is some "freak", as if he got all his profile training from watching movies. Somerset understands they are dealing with something beyond madness and cruelty, maybe a self appointed prophet, too rational for the run of the mill psychopath. As played by Spacey, Doe is a creepy enigma, a messianic villain with parallels to Milton's Lucifer and Heath Ledger's Joker.
The sense of impending doom is overwhelming in the stunning set design, while the chase scenes were innovative. Fincher's career transition from music videos to features comes through perfectly, all the crime scenes are straight out of a horror movie.
Gweneth Paltrow as Mills's wife is the only ray of hope in the movie and made something out of a nothing role (early Fincher films tend to be male dominated).
Se7en is a cruel film. Aesthetically brilliant and always watchable, the nihilistic ending set itself up for parody on many occasions, Se7en is a grim study in futility with a Medieval sense of justice. As Leonard Cohen sang, "everybody knows the war is over/everybody knows the good guys lost."