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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006)

As previously noted, I found the 2003 remake of the Tobe Hooper classic to be a solid horror film on its own merits.  It was a successful film, but due to how it left Leatherface, a sequel was less than likely.  Instead, the filmmakers chose to exploit an even worse trend in films – a prequel.  Generally, it wouldn’t make much difference due to the formulaic slasher style, but intending it to be a sort of origin story for Leatherface was an idea that should’ve been left alone.  I must warn you that this review will have some spoilers in it.  There are certain issues I will raise that cannot be explored without them.  While I will try not to be detailed in my spoilers, they do directly impact the fact of who dies and who survives.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning takes place in 1969 – four years before the events of the previous film.  Dean (Taylor Handley) has been drafted into the United States Army in the midst of the Viet Nam War.  His brother, Eric (Matthew Bomer), has already had a tour in ‘Nam, and is going back to re-enlist.  Chrissie (Jordana Brewster) very much loves Eric, and doesn’t want him to go.  Unfortunately, he’s too gung-ho for the war and being a patriot to choose love over volunteering for the war.  What Eric doesn’t know is that Dean intends to dodge the draft by hopping the Mexico border with his girlfriend Bailey (Diora Baird).  The group of four must travel cross-state in Texas for the brothers to join the army.  Meanwhile, changes are occurring in the Hewitt household.  With the closing of the slaughterhouse, the family is all that’s left of this town.  Charles Hewitt (R. Lee Ermy) assumes the role of town sheriff, the family casually embraces cannibalism, and Thomas Hewitt (Andrew Bryniarski) begins his vicious killing streak.  Inevitably, these two stories converge, and total carnage and death ensues. I can’t say you’ll “witness the birth of fear,” but you will be a witness to a lot of visceral violence.

My first main gripe with this film is that the focus is on the wrong character, despite the great actor portraying him.  Leatherface is the icon of the franchise, and six films have been produced and released with him as that icon.  Whether you call him Bubba Sawyer or Thomas Hewitt doesn’t make a huge difference.  Either way, he’s still a cannibalistic homicidal maniac who wears human flesh as a mask, and kills people with a chain-saw in Texas.  So, my point is, when it comes time to tell of his origins, to explain to us why he is who he is, and why he does what he does, how come the focus of the film is diverted away from him?  Why is he treated as the secondary villain throughout the film when he is the icon of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise?  He’s on all the posters, all the promotional materials, and has always been treated as the main attraction in the films.  In this film, R. Lee Ermey is given the reigns as Charles Hewitt / Sheriff Hoyt.  He has the brunt of the spotlight, and has more of his character explored than Leatherface.  As the matriarch of the Hewitt family, it is only natural he’s in a leadership role, but Leatherface is barely in this film.  Only when someone is to be brutally murdered, is he brought into frame.  We really learn next to nothing more about Leatherface than was explained in the 2003 remake.  In fact, far more of Leatherface’s origins were stated in that film than this supposed origins story.  This alone makes the idea of a prequel a wasted opportunity.  If you’re not going to explore the back story and origins of the franchise’s one and only constant star, then why bother doing a prequel?  The film sets itself up like it is making Leatherface the focus of the story, but once Ermey comes on screen, he’s given the spotlight.  Now, there’s a difference between stealing the spotlight, and being given it.  One occurs out of pure happenstance by an actor’s outstanding performance.  The other is fully planned by the filmmakers.  The filmmakers chose to put focus on Hoyt instead of Leatherface, and that honestly annoys me.  What further annoys me is that the brunt of the back story in this film is glossed over in the main title sequence!  A montage of Thomas Hewitt at different ages and some newspaper headlines is the meat of the “beginnings.”

My second gripe is that the ending is a victim of the film’s own trappings.  This is a prequel, and we’ve already seen the first film which is set four years after this one.  So, we already know who is not going to die in this film.  When the biker Holden (Lee Tergesen) has Hoyt at gunpoint, you want to get excited that the tables have turned, and this family may now get their deadly due.  Of course, that’s short lived since we already know that Hoyt isn’t going to die because he’s alive (and in one piece) four years later, as seen in the 2003 remake.  Thus, there’s no tension, hope, or suspense that the scene is obviously intent on provoking from an audience.  And the oh-so-clever way out of this is when Holden does pull the trigger, the gun doesn’t fire, and thus, leaving him defenseless to the subsequent attack upon him.  This happens despite two facts:  one being that he checked the gun chamber earlier on, and more importantly, he just successfully fired the gun at another of the Hewitt clan no more than a minute ago.  The gun works one minute, and then, doesn’t the next.  This is the first of two displays of stunted logic by the filmmakers.  The second comes from the ending – which is worse because you quickly realize that every potential victim will die.  Leatherface magically appears in the backseat of this getaway car stolen by our heroine, despite the fact that he was still trailing behind her when she got in the car.  Then, he also is able to maneuver that big ass chainsaw around in the back seat.  So, Leatherface must’ve contacted the starship Enterprise, had Scotty beam him into the backseat, and used a retractable chainsaw to kill the girl.  Of course, he still has to walk back home.  The film ends without a resolution, and thus, feels empty.  Even the brief narrated statements by John Larroquette are no real help.  This is honestly the flattest ending to a horror film I can recall seeing.

While this film is as intense, brutal, and grueling as everyone has been saying, it feels much less developed than the 2003 remake.  I found the young protagonist leads to be less endearing and sympathetic than those in Marcus Nispel’s film.  This foursome, more or less, felt like your standard slasher film cannon fodder with only some decent level of character development behind them.  I didn’t particularly feel for them because they lacked any degree of true emotional depth.  The brutality of their deaths, despite the great impact of their ferocity, did not draw any further empathy from me.  The less-than-engaging actors aren’t completely to blame for this because the screenplay doesn’t give them any real personalities to make their characters worth much of a damn – especially the girls.  They all seem too cliché and hollow.  There’s no emotional roller-coaster ride that these characters are subjected to, or even any straight out mindfuck material to screw with their sanity.  You don’t see any of them descend into hysterics or some pit of despair.  Nobody seems genuinely traumatized by the insanity and carnage they bare witness to.  Jordanna Brewster doesn’t come remotely close to what Jessica Biel was so rich with back in 2003.  Biel was exceptionally likeable, but also had a tomboy toughness to her, a touch of grittiness, and a real traumatic out-pouring of emotion.  I want to see tears and uncontrollable sobbing when a girl sees one of her best friends or boyfriend get savagely murdered right in front of her.  Brewster just doesn’t display the acting chops to pull off that level of overly intense emotional distress.  Even the tougher heroines of the franchise have shown a wider range of emotions than Brewster shows any hint of here.  Only Holden, the rebel biker, did I actually feel for, but that’s only because I have a real big fondness for Lee Tergesen.  He’s always done very exceptional acting, and it’s always an extra special treat when I see Tergesen on screen.

The final gripe is the audacity of these filmmakers to try to recreate the infamous “dinner scene” from Tobe Hooper’s original Texas Chain Saw Massacre film.  The version of this scene in this film is about as disturbing as your picnic in the park getting rained on.  A quickly slashed throat is as far as it goes to disturb you.  This family just doesn’t display enough erratic or demented physical behavior to tap into the raw, psychotic mania Hooper originally captured.  Director Jonathan Liebesman’s version is totally forgettable and dismissible.  Leatherface isn’t even present until the very end.  It’s as pussified as can be imagined without becoming totally laughable.  This just goes to show that you cannot recreate a classic, especially when you’re barely trying, and at least Marcus Nispel had the foresight not to attempt to recreate this scene in his film.

Now, after this massive tangent of gripes and negativity, you inevitably ask if there’s anything good here.  Well, there is some that goes a long way.  The acting from the returning cast remains solid as a rock, and the cinematography is quite good except when the end chase sequence turns into The Blair Witch Project with the shaky-cam bullshit.  When will filmmakers learn that this style of shooting is nothing but annoying, disorienting, and detracting to the effectiveness of a scene?  Beyond that, nothing in the camera work really stood out for me – good or bad, and honestly, didn’t appear noticeably any grittier to me than the 2003 remake.  It’s not as glossy in its lighting, but I personally wouldn’t state much more difference than that.  The look of the film is nearly identical to Marcus Nispel’s installment down to the faded, dry color scheme.  I’m really indifferent towards the musical score.  It doesn’t enhance the film much, but certainly doesn’t damage it.  It’s just one of those scores that’s just there.  On the editing side, the film cuts away, and ultimately holds back, when the most graphic imagery appears.  Whether this was an MPAA rating requirement, or the director’s prerogative is uncertain.  For whatever reason, I’m tempted to believe the latter especially after seeing what made the R-rated cut of The Hills Have Eyes earlier that same year, but one of the producers said that seventeen scenes had to be cut down to obtain an R rating.  An unrated cut was released on DVD, but the single theatrical viewing was enough for me.

The violence here is indeed more unrelenting and brutal than in the 2003 remake.  Every act of violence is so smash mouth that it will have you recoiling and cringing.  Flesh is slashed and shredded, bones are crushed, skulls battered, and blood is spattered.  It’s intense and tough to take.  The first kill, which is by sledgehammer, is so visceral and dead-on realistic that you may suffer whiplash from the impacts.  The first chainsaw kill is dramatic, and the sound of it is gut-wrenching.  Although, the focus is almost completely on the violence instead of the aftermath.  Seeing the end result of all this carnage usually goes a long way to building up the fear and emotional distress of our protagonists.  This film does indeed lack tension and suspense.  It’s just about making the most violent and barbarous film possible.  You can get the very same thing in most Quentin Tarantino films.  When I watch a horror film, I want tension and suspense racked up as far as possible, or at least have it delve into pure madness.  Director Jonathan Liebesman really makes no attempt at this.  He just wants violence upon violence.  He’s about the shock and impact which are merely momentary whereas the emotional roller-coaster that the build up and aftermath offer are long-lasting.  Still, the savagery of the film does make an impact that you won’t soon forget, but doesn’t do anything to keep you on the edge of your seat.  This film is purely about sadism, not terror.  It’s a blunt object lacking character or subtlety instead of the finely-crafted piece of terror, tension, and suspense that I was hoping for.  Furthermore, despite all this barbarism, this film lacks the whirlwind of insanity that has always been the high marks in these films.

Also, what The Beginning lacks that the 2003 remake had is bravado and an animalistic rage for Leatherface.  In Marcus Nispel’s film, Leatherface was like a tank barreling down on his prey, and smashing through whatever got in his way.  Here, he barely has any screen presence at all since Ermey’s given all the damn screentime.  There was no pay-off for all this hiding Leatherface in shadows and such.  By the end, he has less screentime here than Jason Voorhees in Jason Goes To Hell, something fans have always been quite vocal over in that film.  In 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Leatherface was a dominant physical presence, and that is sorely lacking here.  And where’s the bravado?  I was actually surprised and impressed by the 2003 remake because it was a real, straight up horror film that was very well-rounded.  I won’t say at all that it measures up on the same levels to Hooper’s classic, but I would hardly say it was a disgrace.  That film dared to be what exceptionally few horror films were actually trying to do at the time – be a real horror film.  It wanted to scare you, to make you feel the horror, and disturb you to some degree.  This prequel doesn’t even try to be that much beyond upping the bar for the intensity of the violence, but still doesn’t kick my ass.  Nispel’s film also had a certain consistent adrenaline rush to it, but this prequel lacks even that.  No momentum is ever built up.

I will indeed give this film high marks for its guts to not hold back on the violence and savagery, but I honestly feel it falls short in every other aspect.  There’s so much that seems carbon-copied from the previous film that it becomes difficult to focus on anything remotely original here.  Even the end chase sequence swings through the slaughterhouse, albeit only briefly.  In fact, the entire end chase is very brief, sacrificing (again) any attempt at building tension or a sense of imminent peril.  The screenplay wastes every opportunity to make Leatherface the focus of the movie, and to mainly explore his evolution from a deformed outcast child to a cannibalistic, psychotic, and vicious butcher, which I thought was the entire point of this prequel.  The director foregoes any attempt at creating tension, suspense, or even a passing sense of insanity in exchange for pure blunt brutality.  It’s just kill, kill, kill to no end.  Just an excuse for a body count.  The characters that we should have immense sympathy for really just fell flat for me.  I didn’t care if they lived or died.  There wasn’t nearly enough emotional depth or personality to them to forge any connection for me.  The girls are just there to scream and offer some eye candy.  I will also take issue with anyone who freely throws around the statement that this film is terrifying.  Unless a movie makes you scream out in terror, has you pissing your pants, or leaves you completely paralyzed with fear in your theatre seat, don’t dare say that this or any other film is terrifying.

Anyway, I have to ultimately say that this film is much less developed than the 2003 remake, but is indeed more intense where the violence is concerned.  I don’t see it as a good enough trade-off.  Reference Alexandre Aja’s The Hills Have Eyes remake to see how a film of this kind is done right.  That, my fellow horror fans, was the true best horror film of 2006.  It had all the fear, madness, empathy for characters, suspense, gore, and brutality that one looks for in a Texas Chainsaw Massacre film.  No sequel, prequel, rip-off, or remake has yet to do justice to Tobe Hooper’s original, unrelenting, and raw film from 1974.  This film is rather lifeless and lacks any genuine human element to connect with – something essential to any great horror film.  Ultimately, I cannot recommend The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning all that much.  If you just want pure brutality with little else to scare or entertain, this is likely for you, but it’s surely not one for me.

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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.  The title is infamous in the history of American cinema.  It remains as one of the most disturbing films ever made.  It’s just raw unrelenting terror, a psychotic journey straight into the bowels of hell.  How anyone could ever believe they could remake such a thing is beyond my comprehension.  Of course, you throw in the name Michael Bay, and everything becomes so easily understood.  The man makes mindless big budget summer blockbusters, and hardly any of them are worth a second viewing (if even a first).  Relegating him to a producer’s role doesn’t seem like a huge step in any positive direction, but surprises can come along.  I admit that I was a detractor to the entire idea of this film.  Nothing Hollywood-produced can ever equal or even hope to surpass something as purely insane and terrifyingly real as Tobe Hooper’s original film.  The trick is not to expect such a thing because it’ll never happen.  If you compare this 2003 remake to the original film from 29 years earlier, you will inevitably despise it, and so, I am going to review this film on its own merits – which I find to be surprisingly good.

The setup is pretty simple, and quite formulaic.  A group of teens are traveling through 1973 Travis County, Texas on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert.  There’s the tough but vulnerable tomboy Erin (Jessica Biel), her affectionate boyfriend Kemper (Eric Balfour), the dim bulb muscle head Andy (Mike Vogel), the sort of hippie hitch-hiker from El Paso Pepper (Erica Leerhsen), and the skittish odd man out Morgan (Jonathan Tucker).  They’re singing along with “Sweet Home Alabama” (which actually wasn’t released until 1974), and enjoying a bit of weed.  Everything’s all a happy road trip until they come across a very traumatized girl, around their age, trailing along the barren highway.  A tragic turn of events with this girl forces the group to contact the local police – Sheriff Hoyt (R. Lee Ermey).  This terrible twist of fate soon leads them to a large rundown house to obtain help, but what’s waiting for them there is anything but helpful.  What they encounter is a crazed backwoods family, and the murderous, relentless, chain saw wielding Leatherface.  The events of this day would become known as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (depending on your disposition).

What really stands out in this film is the great casting.  Where to start?  Well, what is most important in any slasher film is the heroine.  Jessica Biel is so amazing.  Her character tumbles through a horrifying bottomless pit of terror, and she sells all of it.  She starts out very affectionate, but also tough and take charge.  Biel and Eric Balfour really have wonderful chemistry, the love between Erin & Kemper seems very genuine and heartfelt.  Early on, there’s so much sympathy built for her and the rest of the young cast.  Later on, when the chain saw revs and the terror begins, the grief and fear she emotes is so frightening real.  The tension and suspense will get to you, but it wouldn’t exist if Biel didn’t have the acting chops to make Erin such a sympathetic and real heroine.  Of course, Eric Balfour complements Biel perfectly.  He’s not a macho guy at all, he’s very genuine, and you believe, without question, that he’s fully in love with her.  He wants to spend the rest of his life with Erin.  Balfour also demonstrates a sense of leadership as well, standing firm in what he feels is best.  Mike Vogel plays the stereotypical muscle head, but plays it with a dumb sympathy.  He says the complete wrong things at the wrong times, but he really means nothing ill about it.  He’s not the brightest guy, but he’s the kind of friend you can depend on when you need him.  Jonathan Tucker is admittedly the weakling of the group, and certainly less sensitive.  Though, eventually, you can’t help but feel for the poor guy.  Ultimately, he’s just scared, freaked out over the situation at hand, and just wants to put it behind him as quickly as possible.  Finally, Erica Leerhsen plays a far less stable girl than Erin is.  Pepper was only hitching a ride down the highway, and is now in a situation she never wanted any part of.  She easily starts to break down after being terrorized by Sheriff Hoyt, and barely holds together.

On the side of the psycho family, the Hewitt clan, you pretty much have to start with Andrew Bryniarski, the newest Leatherface.  This is, by far, the most straight forward and aggressive portrayal of the character, ever.  In the original franchise continuity, Leatherface was portrayed in a few different ways, but mostly in a mentally underdeveloped fashion.  Here, he’s a ferocious animal.  He’s a rampaging bull, but appears to be more focused than ever before.  The fact that he is now named Thomas Hewitt instead of Bubba Sawyer would appear to be to distinctly differentiate the two continuities.  Still, there’s a moment or two where Leatherface seems a bit like a ridiculed little boy.  It gives a hint of character and depth to him.  The overall look of Leatherface is very hulking, but not in a Kane Hodder fashion.  Leatherface is just BIG!  Andrew Bryniarski is a 6’5″ body builder with a decent list of acting roles to his credit.  So, there’s no lack of physical screen presence on his part.  The design of Leatherface is all-new, but not foreign – the butcher’s smock remains.  As with every new film, the mask of flesh is re-designed with more detailed ideas in it.  Apart from The Return of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which I have no intentions of ever seeing, I’ve never had any issues with any of the masks I’ve seen as they all offer something unique and different.  I mean, Leatherface can’t wear the same mask of flesh for all that long.  Sooner or later, it’s going to rot away.

The screenplay by Scott Kosar (The Machinist) introduces some new elements and characters into the world of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  One such new element is Sheriff Hoyt portrayed by R. Lee Ermey, who is very creepy and sadistic.  Granted, he seems to be called upon to do the same act in most every film since Full Metal Jacket, but he does it so well.  His Sheriff Hoyt is terribly intimidating, frightening, and demented.  You just don’t know what he’s gonna do next.  He pushes these scared teens to the edge, but doesn’t let them off this ride.  It’s all about psychological torture for many of his scenes.  The rest of this fucked up family is quite good, but have significantly less screentime.  Terrence Evans plays the cranky and creepy Old Monty exceptionally well, and all the ladies really dive off the deep end, too.

Next, there’s the direction of Marcus Nispel.  He had no film credits preceding this film, just music videos.  That can get people pissing in the wrong direction.  David Fincher began as a music video director, and look at the amazing films he’s directed.  I honestly feel that Nispel has a great talent for tension and suspense.  The way he crafts every scene in this film definitely twisted my muscles up in knots, and had some chills running over me.  You may indeed get the jitters here and there.  Although, while he did film some very gory and disturbing footage, he felt the need to hold back.  Alternate cuts of scenes are present on the Platinum Series DVD, and they really made me twitch in my seat.  They would be a gore hound’s dream, but we are left with a slightly tamer final cut.  Still, there’s a lot of gore and terrifying violence to satisfy your brutal horror needs.  There’s some gutsy stuff that nobody had the gumption to do back in 2003.  Horror films had been roaming down the safe road for a long time, and this film chose to get ballsy.  It went further with the violence and brutality.  Still, it held back some for fear of overloading the audience with too much intensity and visceral gore, but as time has told, genre audiences of today can handle a lot of intensity brutality.  However, it takes a talented filmmaker to craft suspense and tension, which Nispel achieves here.

Daniel Pearl, the cinematographer of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original, returned to lense this remake.  The difference is striking, but the difference of $9.1 million in budget and 30 years of artistic evolution tends to do that.  It has a gritty beauty to it.  In the light, there’s a dry, desolate, but wide open landscape to the film.  The big Texas sky goes on for eternity creating a grim isolated feeling.  In the dark, there’s this striking, but beautiful lighting.  Probably too slick and polished for something baring this title, but it’s high contrast and very effective.  There’s a density to the darkness that enhances the isolation.  Overall, I really enjoyed the look of the film.  It’s very rich and detailed.  It sounds wrong to call it gorgeous, but that’s just how I feel about it.

The musical score by Steve Jablonsky intensifies all the tension and suspense.  It truly aids the film without overwhelming it.  I found it noticeable, but not at all in a bad way.  It really drives home the terror, as does the entire sound design.  When that chain saw revs, it’s louder and fiercer than ever before.  Also, despite the fact that the soundtrack album is filled with modern day heavy metal bands, all you hear of any of them is in the latter half of the end credits.  Rather unnecessary and out-of-place for a film set in 1973, but the studio’s just gotta have their commercial soundtrack.

Overall, I honestly find this film to be very good.  It’s not perfect as the filmmakers’ felt the need to hold back a bit on the intense violence and gore in the editing stage.  If an unrated cut were ever released, I think this drawback would be remedied.  Ultimately, standing on its own merits, Marcus Nispel’s first film is impressive and the kind of film most directors would kill for as the start of their feature film directing careers.  Sadly, Nispel’s remake of Friday The 13th ended up being a terrible failure.  Again, if you go in this film with the intent of comparing it to Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original film, I don’t see how you’re gonna like it.  Your mind is probably already made up that this remake is inferior, and I agree that nothing’s ever going to measure up to that film on the same levels.  The 1974 and 2003 movies are two entirely different beasts.  No modern day $9.2 million Hollywood studio film is going to be like an $80,000 independent film from the 1970s years ago.  More importantly, you can’t recreate what Hooper accomplished, and nor should you.  I think it was wise for the filmmakers to not try to emulate anything specific from that movie, especially certain scenes.  With the way this remake was approached and shot, such a thing could only fail.  In any case, this version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is definitely worth your time.  Whether you will view it as a worthy remake is purely subjective.  It’s a good, solid horror film that does what a horror film is supposed to do – scare the crap out you.  On a final note, I found it to be invaluable and a beautiful homage to the original film to bring back the greatly talented and beloved actor John Larroquette to narrate the opening and end of the film.  His voice is as much a part of the history of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as Leatherface and Tobe Hooper.


Seven (1995)

Back in my favorite year in film, 1995, David Fincher brought us a terribly disturbing and gripping crime film in Seven that changed the genre dramatically, and set Fincher forth on a very successful, high profile directorial career.  His previous film was Alien 3, and that was plagued with production difficulties and creative clashes.  It was not a success, but Seven showed what an unencumbered David Fincher was capable of.  Supported by a powerful cast and a brilliant screenplay, this didn’t just spark his career, it ignited it.

Lieutenant Detective William Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is a seasoned investigator who is on his final days before retirement.  Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) is a young, impulsive cop looking to make a difference, and maybe even a name for himself, here on the grimy, ugly side of this nameless city.  They are put together on a series of murders that Somerset soon determines is the work of a serial killer who justifies his crimes as absolution for the world’s ignorance of the Seven Deadly Sins.  Each crime is more ghastly than the last as this sociopath “John Doe” uses them as a garish method of preaching.  While Mills is quickly convinced that this killer is a certified whack job, Somerset sees the calculating, educated rationale behind these crimes.  Both men slowly descend into this frightening and disturbing world that culminates in an unforgettable climax that tests the resolve of both men.

While there had been serial killer films before this, Seven really applied an original concept and environment to the subgenre.  Having the killer, John Doe, be motivated by the seven deadly sins opened up the film to social commentary, and that is handled exceptionally well.  Somerset is someone who you would like to know what kind of person he was before he was damaged by the apathy and amorality of the world.  He’s someone that appears to have once strongly believed in certain admirable principals, but has since lost his zeal for them.  He’s perhaps looked far too deep for too long into the grimy darkness of humanity, and Mills is someone who, likely, hasn’t looked deep enough.  He judges everything on surface appearances, and doesn’t entertain the possibilities of a deeper psychological analysis of their adversary.  Somerset slowly tries to educate Mills to be a more insightful and knowledgeable investigator, and while it brings them more into alignment with one another, it can’t wholly change who Mills is at his core.  The scenes of both Detectives discussing philosophies on Doe’s motives and how they reflect upon society are amazingly well written and perfectly acted by Freeman and Pitt.

With the film never stating what city this takes place in, it creates an enveloping environment in which one can never get quite comfortable, and you’re not supposed to.  The world of Seven is dangerous, seedy, disturbing, and filthy.  This feels like a city where decency of any kind is in the extreme minority.  The production design creates a world that is probably even more weathered than Somerset is.  There is deep texture put into every aspect of every setting to give it a worn down history.  There’s nothing new and shiny here.  It’s all old and deteriorated by time.  The grime seeps through in every frame of film, and the color timing adds to that further with a slightly de-saturated quality.  The near constant rain just adds to the miserable conditions that these characters have trudge through every day.  It was an excellent choice to have the entire climax take place outside of the bleak urban environment and put it into a sun-baked desolate open field.  The visuals in that sequence depict a dead landscape.

The cinematography of Darius Khondji enhances the production design further with a modern noir quality to it.  This is much different than a Michael Mann type of neo noir where things are glossy and colorful, but still offering a depth of darkness.  This is a style of noir that emphasizes the dreadful and macabre aspects of this world.  It’s meant to show off a gritty, unsettling realism that will horrify.  Khondji composes shots with a lot of dramatic weight, and makes use of dolly tracks very well in specific moments.  I love the tracking shot after the duel interrogation scene after the “lust” killing.  It’s just Somerset and Mills sitting in separate interrogation rooms quiet and still.  They are taking a long moment to recover from everything they’ve just witnessed and experienced.  The shot smoothly tracks from the one-way window of Somerset’s room to Mills’ room.  It’s a quiet downbeat moment for both the characters and the audience to soak it all in.  The main action sequence of the Detectives chasing after John Doe is exceptionally well shot maintaining a solid sense of geography with each character, and letting each shot count as the sequence moves from one location to another.  The scene constantly evolves adding in new obstacles and dangers along the way.  Every aspect of its execution is excellent.  Overall, the cinematography of Seven is superb and masterful.  It is definitely a result of a cohesive artistic vision.

Rob Bottin was a special make-up effects master starting with his amazing achievements in John Carpenter’s The Thing in 1982.  In Seven, his signature grotesque and stunningly detailed work is highly evident.  He knows how to bring out the garish realistic horror in his creations.  It fits Fincher’s visual style dead-on presenting the smallest details with great clarity to make you believe that everything your seeing is frighteningly real.  Bottin worked with great filmmakers like Joe Danté and Paul Verhoeven before joining with Fincher, and I could praise Bottin’s body of work to endless extent.  It has always had a particularly off-beat and strange approach which reflects Bottin’s personality very well.  While Seven went grossly under-appreciated at the Academy Awards with only a well deserved nomination for Best Editing, Rob Bottin won a Saturn Award for his work here, and it was also very well deserved.

It is a very taut and suspenseful story that Andrew Kevin Walker wrote and Fincher executed.  No time is really wasted getting our characters into the plot.  We learn about them along the way through the investigation instead of introducing them in a standard first act structure of seeing them go through their daily lives before something adverse occurs.  How they each approach the case tells us all we need to know about Mills and Somerset, as I stated earlier.  The case and plot unfold with a strong sense of mystery and intrigue as both Detectives uncover the chilling theme behind these murders.  Each homicide becomes increasingly more graphic and horrific, thus, heightening the twisted psychological state of the killer.  Meanwhile, there is Somerset getting to know David and his wife Tracy, portrayed by Gwyneth Paltrow, who tries to adjust to their new home, which she is not very fond of.  She confides in her husband’s new partner after getting to know his sensible and compassionate manner.  These scenes and character beats are nicely interwoven to continue developing these characters and their relationships.  This maintains an audience’s invested interest in how they deal with everything that’s going on, and the repercussions of what they encounter.

The film presents a definitely interesting psychological state of its killer.  How he gets into police custody is quite unexpected, and sets up a very compelling final act where John Doe is in control.  He might be in handcuffs, but he’s the one leading the Detectives towards a chilling conclusion.  A friend of mine believes that Brad Pitt over acts drastically in this climax.  I’ve never had a problem with it.  In that moment, David Mills is severely torn in an agonizing emotional state where he wants to lash out, but repeatedly tries to restrain the urge.  He’s already established as an impulsive and brash person, and attempting to not lash out in anger would be extremely difficult for a man like David Mills to do.  He’s fighting raw, instinctual emotion, and that would likely result in the reaction Pitt presents here.

Brad Pitt’s performance all around is rich with depth and emotion.  Mills is a guy who cares about what he does, and wants to make a difference.  He could easily become an ignorant jerk of a character with his brash attitude and closed mindedness, but Pitt gives him enough heart and humanity to make him likeable.  He takes the hard headedness, the intensity, the loving husband, the optimistic outlook on humanity, and the naivety and mixes them into a cohesive whole.  As do all the characters in this film, David Mills has his complexities, and Pitt makes it all work and make sense.  Pitt also visually inhabits the role well giving Mills a dirtier, more gritty look than Pitt had ever adopted before, and truly makes the character seamless with the world he inhabits.

The synergy between Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman is solid.  They counterbalance one another beautifully with their characters existing with polar opposite mentalities.  They hardly ever agree on anything, but are both motivated to see this investigation through to the end.  When they occasionally do get on the same page, it’s a great spark that quickly motivates the story forward.

Freeman, as always, is exceptional.  He embodies the dour philosophical mindset of William Somerset wholly.  Again, he’s a man worn out from the moral decay of society, and only reluctantly gets pulled towards this case.  At first, he wants to avoid it, but Somerset’s intuitive and educated mind drives him towards it.  Freeman greatly captures that reluctant attraction, and conveys the character’s psychological investigative approach with a great deal of skill and weight.  Somerset is very meticulous, never jumping to conclusions, and Freeman has the right seasoned quality and grasp on tone to sell those qualities well.  So much of the film’s tone is sold through him.  Prior to the appearance of John Doe, all of the religious ideology and deconstruction of motive is carried by Morgan Freeman, and I don’t think anyone else could’ve done it as well as he did.  While the screenplay explains it all very well, if handed over to the wrong actor, it might not sell remotely as well or as coherently.  Again, it’s all in the tone, which is pitch perfect through Morgan Freeman’s deeply talented abilities.

In the same year that Kevin Spacey gave us his exceptional performance in The Usual Suspects, he also gave us this fascinating surprise performance as John Doe.  It’s a greatly subdued and conservative piece of work that makes Doe so much more unsettling.  Throughout his screentime, there’s that knowledge that Doe is not done, yet.  There is something more chilling and frightening still to come, and Spacey’s performance is very foreboding in the most subtle way possible.  He’s in control, and he is reveling in the impending completion of his masterpiece.  It’s all amazingly compelling.  Spacey won an Academy Award for his turn as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, and this role is equally deserving of that accolade.

The supporting cast is very solid.  R. Lee Ermy is the tough Police Captain, but never falls into that Full Metal Jacket stereotype people like to shoehorn him into.  While he doesn’t have a great amount of screentime, his character is given enough character beats to make him feel fleshed out and genuine.  Gwyneth Paltrow is perfectly cast as Mills’ wife Tracy.  She’s a very compassionate and loving woman who is not pleased with their current situation moving into the city, but has no desire to cause David any stress or turbulence by voicing her worries.  She is an exceptionally decent young woman that definitely is out of place in this decaying urban setting, and Paltrow plays these emotional beats with depth and heart.  Everyone else filling out the cast holds their own strongly, and help to create a very full and dimensional world for this film.

Lastly, Howard Shore composed a strong score by bringing weight to the grim, horrifying atmosphere.  It truly emphasizes the drama, urgency, and intensity of the film.  It’s not a score that jumps out at you, and nor should it be.  It maintains and enhances dramatic tone throughout.  Shore has proven to be a widely diverse film composer, and he is able to complement David Fincher’s darker cinematic style so very well here.

Andrew Kevin Walker put together a deeply impressive and stunning screenplay here, and Fincher was the absolute perfect choice to realize it.  Much of what I write in these reviews is more than just saying if the film is good or bad.  In a case such as this, it’s about spotlighting the brilliant achievements in filmmaking, and analyzing what made it such an instant, powerful classic.  Seven is a landmark film for the genre, and especially for New Line Cinema.  It was really their first A-list type of film attracting high profile movie stars like Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Spacey, and securing an amazing director with incredible vision in David Fincher.  It’s entirely shot as a major studio film, and strongly moved New Line Cinema into contention as a serious, big budget studio.  Only six years later would they release The Lord of the Rings trilogy to massive commercial and critical success.  This was a pivotal film for both the studio and David Fincher.  It is an all around shocking and amazing piece of work that delivers an intelligent story with thematic and dimensional elements along with startling images of graphic horror.