This week in “Now and Then,” columnist Matt Brennan cracks The Case of the Two Murder Mysteries: AMC’s Emmy-nominated The Killing, now showing an encore of its first season Sunday nights at midnight, and critical darling David Fincher’s breakout thriller from 1995, Seven.
When it rains, it pours. AMC’s compulsively watchable crime drama The Killing proves the aphorism true, and not just because it adds to the network’s already solid slate of engaging, complex fare ( Mad Men , Breaking Bad ). It’s also, quite literally, a dark, lush, moody series, like the Seattle in which it’s set. In The Killing the rain comes down in sheets, a near-constant deluge, as though God Himself were trying to wash the place away.
Developed by Veena Sud from the Danish original, the first season of the series tracks the investigation of the murder of Rosie Larsen — an investigation led by Det. Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos). Pulled from the brink of retirement by the case, she ducks and weaves through the morass of suspects with her ostensible replacement, rookie Det. Stephen Holder (Joel Kinnaman). The list of potential killers may seem ripped from the headlines — the ex-boyfriend, the teacher, the druggie, the mayoral candidate — but the caustically funny rapport of Linden and Holder is the beating heart of each episode. Enos, her forehead lined and jaw set, plays Linden sharp and doubtful, a reluctant heir to Jane Tennyson of Prime Suspect. She doesn’t down whiskey, screw strangers, and destroy relationships with Jane’s consuming fire, but she’s equally willing to sacrifice her personal life to do her job. Kinnaman, playing her stringy, rangy boy Friday, is the line to her circle — his lackadaisical speech and wary eyes combine to give him a watchful, unembarrassed sex appeal that lends all their exchanges a little frisson of excitement.
Actually, The Killing is filled with these shivers, and those who don’t mind a bit of slow pacing in the service of a good story will find themselves engrossed. To wit: the chilling high-angle image of a field sweep in the tall grass, the tight, straight row of policemen advancing like a line of storms; or Rosie’s mom, Mitch (a revelatory Michelle Forbes), doubled over in grief before the kitchen sink. This is no smug open-and-shut case, and The Killing, with far more nerve and nuance than any other procedural, captures the languid misery of a real-life homicide investigation.
This brilliant promise, though, is also what eventually gets the series into trouble. This is not to say you shouldn’t try it out, if you haven’t already — I’ll take a rerun of The Killin over pretty much any summer programming on one of the broadcast networks. But it’s only fair warning to say, without giving too much away, that a series this consumed with realism can’t accumulate so many eerie coincidences and still expect us to keep a straight face. Stretched too far, a narrative like this loses its credibility (see Twin Peaks). Maybe in the end I was only disappointed because The Killing makes it so easy to expect a lot — something about the frequency of those frissons. They’re almost as constant as the rain.
You can see by now that The Killing invites comparison. And you will understand my skepticism when it was suggested I watch it alongside Seven, David Fincher’s dystopian thriller about an aging detective (Morgan Freeman) tracking a serial killer (Kevin Spacey), the detective’s newbie partner (Brad Pitt), and the youngster’s wife (Gwyneth Paltrow, in a subtle star turn of quiet pain that ranks among her best). The similarities are powerful: in both, the veteran retiring detective is pulled back into obsessive crime-solving mode when the callow, less reliable new partner is about to take over. My trepidations stemmed from my memory of Seven, which in my mind seemed way off the AMC series’ ken. It was popular among a certain subset of offbeat teens at the time I was in high school, the sort of thing a budding hipster would mention, after Fight Club became a cult hit, to stake his claim on having gotten there first. These memories were clear but not fond — the way you play back an embarrassing moment again and again in your head, waiting for a different ending.
I wait, still. The thickness of the allusive web, lines of Dante and Milton and Shakespeare; the unending terrors of a dying Baltimore; the willingness to build slowly to a point: we are talking here about a director who was always a technical savant, but didn’t quite know at this early stage how to play our strings with heart as well as shock. Watching Fincher’s pitch-black riff on the seven deadly sins now, I am more appreciative of the craftsmanship than ever, because I know he’s learned how to use it — what Seven lacks in precision, he found in Zodiac, what it lacks in cunning, he uncovered in The Social Network.
That AMC’s series plucks so heavily from Fincher, then, is no surprise. Freeman, like Enos, plays it straight and strict, which allows Pitt room to bare his teeth, to smirk and sidle, with the same dangerous eroticism that Kinnaman does. We canvas the city from above as the days move inexorably forward, stuck somewhere in the limbo between exposition and conclusion. The rain covers it all like a funeral shroud.
Seven, despite its emotive flaws — except for a last-minute twist, the whole thing leaves me cold — is a perfectly woven tapestry of evidence, interrogations, double-crosses, captures and close calls. As Freeman’s character says about police work, “the trick is to find one item, one detail, and focus on it until it’s an exhausted possibility.”
Ever cognizant of this fact, of a murder investigation’s convoluted, dreary miseries, both the film and the series hold everything back. They hinge on small details, and for a while the unerring focus works like a magic trick to draw you in. Until, that is, the possibilities run out, and all you’re left with is exhaustion.