Directed by: James Wan
Starring: Leigh Whannell, Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Ken Leung, Dina Meyer, Michael Emerson, Shawnee Smith, Makenzie Vega, Monica Potter, Tobin Bell
(out of 4)
Before future sequels expanded the storyline, broke it up, and delivered it in puzzle pieces, James Wan’s Saw started out with modest intentions, comparatively speaking. There’s none of the Rube Goldberg inspired traps or non-linear narrative structure (although it does use many flashbacks, some of them nested within each other). What we have instead is a low key thriller that’s part mystery, part detective procedural, part morality tale, part giallo, part Seven-ripoff… you get the idea – it’s all over the map. When it’s concentrating on its two main characters – surgeon Dr. Gordon (no relation to me) and kid photographer Adam, playing a game where life and death are the stakes, it works fairly well. Not so much when it moves to other people and places, like the obsessed policeman story done in shorthand or the doc’s secret motel meetings with an intern. Throw in the bad acting (even from Elwes and Glover, who normally are pretty good), and jump-cut MTV-style editing, and you’ve got an ambitious misfire – a picture with some worthy elements but not quite as smart as it thinks it is.
Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) wakes up in a dingy low-lit bathroom chained to a pipe, with cellmate Adam (Leigh Whannell, who also wrote the screenplay) and a dead body between them. Each man is given a tape with a recording on it; Dr. Gordon’s tells him to kill Adam by 6:00 or something bad will happen to his wife and daughter. The tools at hand are a couple of hacksaws, hidden notes, and a poison tipped cigarette. Don’t forget – somebody is watching. While struggling to find their way out, the doc tells Adam a story of the jigsaw killer, a guy who likes to put people into bizarre, dangerous traps and give them opportunities to escape. Most of the time, this involves something very torturous and gory. The mastermind behind these particular devious acts is kept purposefully hidden until the end, as are his motivations. However, if, as the movie suggests, the jigsaw killer is trying to give his victims a way out of their predicament, it isn’t very fair or easy. One victim must craw through a bunch of razor wire, another must find a combination written all over the walls before poison affects his system while smeared with a flammable paste. You gotta be frickin’ Houdini to escape a jigsaw trap, making the guy’s declarations about teaching life lessons somewhat suspect.
In any case, there’s something intriguing about Saw‘s desire to teach lessons to those who have strayed from the correct path. Most of the victims are good at keeping secrets – the doc may have been cheating on his wife, Adam has a shady profession that ties him not only to Dr. Gordon but Detective Tapp (Danny Glover), who after surviving a throat slit by Jigsaw and getting thrown off the force has become obsessed with the case. This obsession will be a common theme in the series, to be exploited by Jigsaw in one of his labyrinthine games. In the police sequences there is the clear attempt to duplicate Seven, putting Glover in the Pitt role, but alas we have no Morgan Freeman equivalent. It’s just an abridged version anyway, as the movie must make room for an assortment of characters and their back stories, children in peril, and death by bizarre torture devices. There’s even a doll on a tricycle that evokes the memory of an Argento movie – if only the “game” sequences were shot with Argento’s stylish touch and not that of an epileptic. There’s some symbolism too, although a little too obvious. Adam wakes up in a bathtub, undergoing a symbolic baptismal ceremony; the bad guy’s lair is located on Stygian Street (somebody in city hall seriously named it that?).
By the end of Saw we have moved from paranoid thriller to serial killer movie to some kind of treatise on living a proper moral life and remembering the importance of family. I liked how flawed characters forced into life-or-death decisions suddenly have their complex lives reduced to primal impulse – in such a situation everyone figures out what the most important thing in their lives are. The ending of Saw does indeed move with a purpose; it’s just that getting to that point isn’t particularly thrilling. Looking at Saw in comparison to the sequels that would come after it, it appears that Wan and Whannell were unsure where exactly they should take their premise, so they try to throw everything against the wall and see what sticks. Not to worry, together with Darren Lynn Bousman they would eventually figure it out.
- Bill Gordon