Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Saw

Posted by CinemaPsycho on October 29, 2004

Directed by James Wan/Screenplay by Leigh Whannell/Starring Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Leigh Whannell, Monica Potter, Shawnee Smith, Dina Meyer/Lions Gate Films

Two men wake up trapped in the lair of a serial killer. Wacky hijinks ensue.

I was lucky enough to get to see this about a week before its actual release. I mention this only because it’s a rare occurence for me, and because I’d like to give people a warning before they go see it. The trailers and ads for this film promise a hardcore, balls-to-the-wall, blood-and-guts covered horror flick. Saw is a pretty good movie, but don’t go to it expecting a gorefest or even a particularly frightening film. You will be disappointed.

That would be a real shame, because Saw is actually a very clever psychological mind-games thriller that’s worth appreciating on its own terms. Sure, there’s some blood here and there, a few mutilations and several particularly gruesome deaths. But truthfully, Saw isn’t as much about the “kills” as it is about who’s doing them and why. It’s part Agatha Christie whodunit and part Hitchcockian suspense thriller. It’s a combination that seems awkward at times, but ultimately turns out to be satisfying despite its flaws.

So there’s this person running around that’s been dubbed The Jigsaw Killer, who actually doesn’t kill anybody but comes up with elaborate, Rube Goldbergesque devices and plots to make people kill themselves or each other. Why isn’t he called The Mastermind or something like that? His motivation is supposedly to punish people for not appreciating their lives more – his victims are guilty of transgressions like taking drugs, cheating on their wives, etc. One could argue that vices like sex and drugs actually make some people appreciate being alive, and being victimized by a maniac with a homicidal grudge might make them less appreciative, if anything. And most of the time there’s really no way to get out of the complex traps the Jigsaw puts them in, so they wind up dying anyway. So the guy’s logic is a little flawed, like that of most people who try to regulate behavior, but he is insane after all. Go figure.

Much of the story is told in film noir-ish flashbacks, which works well at times but at other times seems overly complicated, slowing down the action and halting the suspense to feed us backstory. Some of the information we gather from those scenes is important, but some of it isn’t really necessary, only serving to set up scenes that just work on shock-value terms. We already get that our two main characters are in a pretty dire predicament here – there’s no real need to keep belaboring the point that Jigsaw is smart, crazy and determined. We pretty much understand that relatively quickly. I kept wishing they would get back to the main story, since that generated more tension than these little vignettes. Obviously they couldn’t spend the entire movie with these two guys in what looks like the bathroom of an abandoned warehouse, but after awhile the suspense of their situation seems seriously undercut.

While this isn’t the kind of movie that people generally go to for the acting, I felt like it could’ve been more effective with better performances. Most of the actors aren’t bad, but their characters are such superficial archetypes that they aren’t given much to work with. Screenwriter Whannell is actually pretty good as one of the protagonists, even outshining his co-star Elwes, who manages some atrocious overacting towards the end that had the audience in hysterics. Less is more, Cary! Glover does his patented “I’m too old for this shit” cop routine, and his character’s obsession with the Jigsaw case seems to come out of nowhere. And fans of Dina (Starship Troopers, TV’s Miss Match) Meyer will be disappointed that she only shows up in one early scene, then disappears from the rest of the movie. I’m guessing that most of her part was cut, and it probably won’t bother most audience members, but it seems a little odd to introduce her character and then just drop her completely. Speaking for myself, if I’m watching a movie with Dina Meyer in it, I’d kinda like to see her! Maybe that’s just me.

Despite all of these flaws, I wound up enjoying Saw quite a bit. It’s nowhere near being a classic of the genre, but for a low-budget indie flick from a first-time director, I think it works and shows enough promise that I’d be very interested to see what he does next. Wan and Whannell pull off some impressive set pieces and generate enough genuine tension to make this worth a look. Their story may lurch forward in fits and starts at times, but it winds up being diabolically clever as well. Just when the plot seems to be running completely off the rails, they pull a final twist that’s not only genuinely surprising, but also makes perfect sense in light of everything that’s come before it.

Anyone who tells you they saw it coming…they’re lying to you. It’s this final gut-punch that fully redeems Saw, and tips the scales to a recommendation rather than an “almost”.

*** 3 stars. 10/29/04

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