‘7 Keys’ review: This sexy thriller is a mean piece of work

It’s easy to feel invisible in a big city, what with so many people, so many apartments, and endless dramas unfurling before unblinking eyes. Sometimes, there’s a comfort in such anonymity, even a certain level of safety. But sometimes you want to be seen, no matter the cost. The London-set thriller 7 Keys is a twisted tale of love, hope, and taking chances, centering on someone who is done being ignored. 

It all begins with a cruel meet-cute: Two strangers catch each others’ eye after each has been stood up. Resilient and ready for a good time, Lena (Emma McDonald) brushes off any could-be embarrassment and embraces happenstance, introducing herself to the handsome lone man across the bar. 

With long wavy hair, a full beard, and a quietly dejected posture, Daniel (Billy Postlethwaite) looks like he was a part of an indie rock band that nearly made it, 15 years back. But now, he looks down at his phone, jittery and lost. That is, until Lena commandeers their night with an adventure that begins with a bit of breaking and entering, detours into heated sex scenes, and concludes somewhere electrifyingly wild. 

What’s 7 Keys about? 

At first blush, 7 Keys seems like a romance. Lena and Daniel are a natural odd couple: She’s outgoing, adventurous, and charismatic; he’s timid and gentle, yet alluring. They hit it off over a dinner where they relish eating unsexy food. (Spaghetti was not made for date nights!) But when Lena seeks a kiss goodnight, she’s jolted by his rejection. Aching to get closer to this man she decides she was destined to meet, she invents a dangerous game. 

Noticing that Daniel carries a ring full of house keys, she suggests they take a tour of London, hitting all his old haunts. Will they cross paths with his exes? Might they intrude on new residents just going about their lives? Could they uncover uncomfortable secrets about each others’ pasts? Oh, you betcha. And as they make their way from one location to another, the stakes of this night shift from loneliness to life-threatening. 

7 Keys is a white hot thriller. 

Admittedly, the central plot twist here is pretty predictable to anyone who’s ever heard a horror story about online dating. However, the plot’s roughest edges are smoothed out by an atmosphere that embraces recklessness and sexual abandon. Sure, maybe certain characters should know better than to blindly trust someone they just met. But doesn’t romance dare us to make potentially (disastrously) stupid choices? Hopeless romantic has always meant reckless romantic, hasn’t it?

At first, Lena seems a bit of a manic pixie dream girl, gorgeous and eccentric, practically manufactured to pull the sheepish could-be beau out of his shell. As such, she revels in transgressions in their b&e spree, not only the home invasion, but little acts of metaphorically marking her new territory. She cavalierly snacks on these strangers’ food. She slips into a red dress from the closet and role-plays with Daniel, apologizing as she imagines his ex-girlfriend might. Lena even aggressively marks the bed with her scent, wiping her fingers across her crotch, then along the center of its neatly spread sheets. 

A vicarious exhilaration surges in these scenes of sexual depravity, in which the new lovers remap the city as their personal pervy playground. Though initially reluctant, Daniel gets into the swing of things in the next location, tossing Lena so enthusiastically in the throes of passion that neighbors begin banging on the wall for them to quiet down. The thrill of getting caught is intoxicating to the lovers, as both have felt invisible for too long. 

Amid their frenzied sexcapades, they begin to reveal their inner selves to each other. Lena lets her guard down, exposing the vulnerabilities behind her scandalous party girl persona. Daniel begins to feel bolder in her presence. But a sinister secret is creeping in to spoil their hopes for a lovestruck future. 

McDonald and Postlethwaite are dynamos together. 

Though 7 Keys plays in SXSW’s Visions slate, it would feel at home in the Midnighter section. Wilkinson has crafted a gnarly piece of work that begins with two figures familiar from rom-coms like last year’s romp Rye Lane, losers at love desperate for attention and affection. But she warps this shared need into a scorching hot sexual connection that risks blinding both to who they are really dealing with. When fantasy and reality collide, 7 Keys tumbles into a messy climax where Wilkinson’s low-budget production demands some creative choices. To her credit, abrupt symbolism plays well, as each apartment along the way was seeded with an element of the surreal. 

Sharply setting one locale apart from another is a wash of bold colored lights, distinguishing each with a sharp mood. One is inky in sultry reds, the perfect place for an illicit seduction. Another is hazy in warm yellow, where the two pretend they’re a long-term couple coming home to get cozy. Another is sickly in neon green, perhaps warning of an end to the honeymoon phase of this romance? These bold colors envelope audiences with the heady expanse of possibilities of a night gone way off the beaten path. There’s an excitement and anxiety that anything could happen. And, with a wicked grin, Wilkinson assures us that plenty will, for better and much, much worse. 

The terrific chemistry between McDonald and Postlethwaite is so intense it carries 7 Keys through its clunkier plot points. Their heat practically radiates off the screen. Together, they perform a dance of love, lust, fear, and loathing that is ruthless and riveting. It’s hard to care much about telegraphed revelations or pernickety plot holes when there’s so much oozing passion to enjoy. 

Simply put, 7 Keys is a lean and mean thriller, flushed with sex appeal, emotional explosions, and sick twists. If you’re seeking something salacious and satisfying, give this one a turn. 

7 Keys was reviewed out of SXSW 2024.

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