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January 1, 2007

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Movie Review – Saw (2004)

by JAMES BRIGHAM

Saw is one rough movie to get through. Right off the bat, that needs to be said. Which is not to say it’s poorly done. On the contrary, the filmmakers do exceedingly well at exploring the film’s plot: watching desperate characters struggle to survive a psychopath’s gruesome deathtraps. In fact, they do it so damn well that your average viewer might be willing to dismiss the notion that the whole affair is not entirely original.

Stylistically speaking, director James Wan (who also gets a story credit) and screenwriter Leigh Whannell are treading deep into territory already explored by films such as Se7en and FearDotCom – jaded people wander through beautifully shot urban hells while being menaced by largely unseen killers. The antagonist runs his mice through a gamut of trials (psychological and physical) and taunts them with the promise of greater meaning to his (or her? or its?) madness. Your reaction to this piece of work will vary depending on your enjoyment of films like this; although, can such a movie really be called pleasurable?

A friend of mine who saw this flick with me would likely say “no.” A foray into such mean-spiritedness was not what he felt like spending $9.00 on. He dismissed Saw as “depressing and boring” and greatly preferred The Grudge, a film he described as a roller coaster ride of fun scares. Regarding Saw, he questioned the necessity of inviting such darkness into a human mind already partially filled with the knowledge of day-to-day suffering and possessing of an imagination more than capable of thinking the worst. When the reality of the world is tilted towards the negative, why spend time with fiction whose primary goal is not to elevate the mind with optimism? (There were heavy echoes of Roger Ebert’s excellent review of the The Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake in my friend’s sentiments. This is somewhat amazing when you consider he never reads movie reviews.)

Ignoring such deeper questions for now, let me cite one of the biggest drawbacks of Saw when it came down to my enjoyment of the film. The acting is occasionally lacking, to put it nicely. Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes) and Adam (Leigh Whannell, doing double-duty as actor and screenwriter) are the two leads, imprisoned in an unknown location with little insight into how they got there or what their fate is. A near unrecognizable Elwes (what happened to you, Westley?) projects too loudly and acts like he’s performing a small budget, off-Broadway play. Screenwriter Whannell struck me as a novice thespian whose fallback tone was whininess, an approach that brought laughter in my audience more than once.

Yet at the same time, I don’t feel as if the lackluster acting derails the film completely. Many of the critically acclaimed horror films of roughly the last four decades featured overblown or cringe-worthy performances. Both Night of the Living Dead and the original version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre managed to scare the hell out of audiences with a cast of largely unknown novice actors. The sheer terror of the characters’ situations allowed people to ignore those gaffes. In the case of Saw, I mainly justified Elwes’ performance as suitable behavior for his character of a haughty surgeon (or, at least, a well recognized stereotype of the profession). As for Whannell’s contribution, the pissy attitude was reasonable given the circumstances of his bewildering kidnapping.

And let me assure you, the film is rife with twists and turns that will leave your head spinning. Saw loves to keep its audience guessing. Its got double-crosses made out of red herrings. Where’s the next clue to escaping the prison of doom? Is Dr. Gordon who he says he is? Is Adam? Does Danny Glover’s cop have a hidden agenda? Who’s the killer? Is the monster behind all this actually following any rhyme or reason, demented or otherwise? For better or for worse, Saw places a nice pile of guesswork on the audience’s plate.

While trying to puzzle all of this out, try not to flinch at some of the scares this sucker serves up. If there had been a video camera on me during my screening, I’m sure it would have registered at least three instances of open-mouthed, eye bugging revulsion (you try to maintain composure during the reverse bear trap scene) and at least two genuine jumps of surprise at “shock frights” (neither of which involved cats!). James Wan’s MTV style editing serves him well during the points of the film involving victims of the madman rapidly trying to beat a ticking clock before their gruesome fate is finalized. He also knows when to slow things down and draw as much suspense out of a scene before smacking you in the face with the frightening moment. Check out the skill involved in shooting Adam exploring the dark recesses of an apartment during a blackout with a camera flash as the only light source.

Not all of it is masterful, of course. The script falls back on cheap sources of tension at times – an incredibly long struggle over a fallen gun – as well as a morally dubious one involving child endangerment. But its triumph lies in the great combination of so many other commonly used tricks in the horror genre: satanic cloaks, animal masks, unknown watchers and violent endings. Saw is like watching a series of stories Edgar Allen Poe might have done as writing exercises before final settling down to write The Pit and the Pendulum or The Cask of Amontillado.

If that notion disturbs you, I would once again encourage you to pass Saw by. It’s not for the squeamish, the unadventurous, or the morally self-righteous. Despite its gruesome content, I consider it daring enough to warrant a sit through by any film buff remotely interested in the horror genre. The flick falls several feet short of reaching the greatness held by a film such as Se7en, but it comes much closer to recapturing the seventies horror vibe than cheap imitators like Rob Zombie’s House of a 1,000 Corpses. I have no qualms about saying it should be considered one of the top American horror films of this decade, thus far.


4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Nov 23 2010

    I totally hate these saw films. Without getting over dramatic, I think they’re symptomatic of the rapid decline of modern civilization.

    Let’s all watch people being mutilated, it’s fun!

  2. Nov 23 2010

    The first Saw movie was predictable and while watching I thought that Jigsaw was a jerk for creating traps that others could not escape from. Then came the second film which proved me right and then the third and so on and so forth. I dislike the first four films because they’re predictable, boring, and mean spirited but Saw V is my favourite one because the writers finally stopped taking the franchise seriously. Saw VI made me laugh the most (read my review for it on my blog) but the series was never really good.
    The films began as a university film project but grew to continually showcase a grand lack of imagination, the same ugly aesthetics in every film, and an anti-hero that is more villain that hero. I thought that as horror films the series is weak and as movies in general they’re terrible.

  3. Feb 9 2013

    Thanks for the thoughtful insights into SAW, James. I feel like your comments reflect the feelings of most horror fans when the topic of SAW comes up – I like it but I don’t. And I agree with you, SAW still belongs on any best-of-the-decade horror film list.

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