Cary Elwes - Lawrence Gordon
Leigh Whannell - Adam Faulkner
Danny Glover - Detective David Tapp
Monica Potter - Alison Gordon
Tobin Bell - John Kramer/Jigsaw
Dina Meyer - Detective Kerry
Michael Emerson - Zep Hindle
Shawnee Smith - Amanda Young
Year - 2004
Score - 3.5 Howls Outta 4
The horror genre is pretty funny sometimes in terms of its evolution. In the beginning, we had NOSFERATU and the Universal Monsters. Then we had more supernatural horror involving demons, zombies, insects, aliens, and Satan himself. That evolved into making the monsters humans themselves, creating what's now known as the slasher film. The slasher film has had its ups and mainly its downs, until the 21st century where people demanded new franchises and more creative ways to scare people. The so-called "torture porn" horror movies have taken the spotlight, using really sick methods to gross out and splatter as much blood and disemboweled limbs onto movie screens as possible. While many can claim that they started the whole "torture porn" craze, only one franchise can claim to be the most successful. That franchise is SAW.
Influenced by more hardcore horror films like HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER and those FACES OF DEATH films, SAW uses these sort of ideas to improve upon them and make them into more superior works. SAW doesn't hide that fact, but it doesn't take advantage of it either. While it tries to gross people out with the promise of someone cutting off their own foot and shed as much blood as possible, there's also a smart script behind that promise - creating one of the most memorable horror films this decade so far.
Two men - photographer Adam (Leigh Whannell) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) - awake inside a dirty bathroom/basement not knowing how they got there. They're chained by a single foot to a set of pipes, unable to move far and/or escape. In the middle of the room, there's the body of a man who shot himself. After finding items, such as a key that doesn't open their chains, a bullet, and a tape player, they come across a pair of saws. After attempting to saw away the chains in vain, they realize that they have to saw through their feet in order to free themselves. Dr. Gordon finds a message that tells him that his wife and daughter will be killed unless Gordon kills Adam by 6 o'clock. Recognizing the method of imprisonment, Gordon realizes they're prisoners of a man who calls himself "Jigsaw" (Tobin Bell), who abducts people with limited moral fiber and forces them to do drastic things to prove their life is worth something. Will Jigsaw force Gordon to prove how much he cares about making things right with his wife and daughter? Or will Gordon and Adam fail the test Jigsaw has given them?
SAW is a smart horror film that has just as much style than it does substance. It's a horror film that takes a cue from David Fincher's modern classic SE7EN, where we have a killer with a strong sense of morals who wants to put his victims into life-or-death traps that will make them realize whether their lives are full of meaning or not. Although this question of morality hovers over the film from beginning to end, it's apparent that director/co-writer James Wan and star/co-writer Leigh Whannell want to make the answers to that question as bloody and horrifying as possible. Due to these "games of morality/traps", SAW is a thriller that keeps you on your toes with clues, twists, and turns at every corner.
I think one of the great things about SAW is how intimate we get with the characters, especially those played by Elwes and Whannell. Having them stuck together in a single room, revealing their messed up lives and how connected they really are, shows a great amount of personality and dimension that many horror films failed to achieve. We're never sure whether these two will help each other get out of this mess alive or if one will turn on the other to save their own ass. The use of items, clues, flashbacks, notes, and those dreaded saws make the audience wonder what they all mean and whether those saws will be used by these characters to escape. Adam's and Gordon's relationship with each other makes us wonder what we would do in a situation like theirs? Would we do what Jigsaw tells us to do? What lengths would we go to maintain our survival? We're flawed just as much as they are. Could this ever happen to us?
I think the film also works due to the fact that the audience is allowed to participate. As an audience, we want to see the big picture. We know that Jigsaw is doing this stuff but why? Why is people's morality in question? Will the cops catch this guy? Will these guys cut their own feet just to escape? Who is that dude in the middle of that basement and why is he there? So many clues...so many twists...so many turns...we're never sure who's on who's side. How many horror films let you question motives of every character so effectively? I remember watching this film when it was first released and never knowing where the story was gonna go. Hell, I didn't even see the ending coming and the clues were right in front of my face the entire time. I know some people believe the ending is contrived and doesn't make sense, but it does if you think about it. I remember its unpredictability and how it put a smile on my face. I think it's really effective and shows how smart the filmmakers were in putting all the pieces together to make an interesting and memorable ending that doesn't insult the viewer.
Of course, everyone wants to see the gore that's associated with SAW. We get a bunch here and it doesn't disappoint. Blown off heads, a dude caught in barb wire, slit throats, shotgun shots, a guy cutting off his foot - it's all good. And all the gore actually MEANS something in context with the story. It's not just done to please gorehounds. What a concept!
Director James Wan directs a fine film here. Full of tension and suspense, SAW never gets boring. The flashbacks are handled well and character development is believable. The blue tinting adds mood to the film. The transition of scenes is stylishly done. Great use of slow motion and fast motion where it actually enhances the film. My only beef is with the quick cuts. I know it's cool to do, but it's usually done during the worst times: the trap scenes. To build up to these scenes and then do quick cuts that doesn't really show everything that's meant to be seen makes them less effective in my opinion. Apparently this is the new wave of directing films, but I think some films can get away with it and some films can't. I felt the quick cutting didn't really add anything to the film. If I wanted these visual reactions, I'd do drugs. The pacing was also a bit off with all the flashbacks and stuff, but I didn't mind them. The film could have been a bit more linear, but it probably wouldn't have been as interesting to watch.
The acting was also good. Cary Elwes was great when he played it subtle during the first half, but totally lost me during the second half. His American accent also lost it too when he started to act crazy when his character found out about how badly his family was in danger. It was kind of funny to listen to, but he didn't bother me at all. Just could have been a lot more consistent, that's all. Leigh Whannell was cool with me. He held his own and gave a very natural performance. I never got a sense that he was Australian. Good job! The best actor was Danny Glover as obsessed Detective Tapp. I totally bought it and any ideas of Glover playing another Murtaugh from LETHAL WEAPON was gone when he went totally berserk over the whole Jigsaw case. The women in the film [Dina Meyer, Monica Potter, and Shawnee Smith] didn't get much to do really, which is a shame. All three are capable actresses that can hold their own. Thankfully Smith and Meyer would do more in the franchise, especially Smith who has become a very memorable character in the SAW movies. And Tobin Bell as Jigsaw didn't do much on-screen either until the end, but his voice was effective and creepy. He, too, would do much more to contribute to the franchise as its lead villain.
THE FINAL HOWL
SAW is deserving of having a successful franchise. It's smart, clever, suspenseful, and has enough blood and guts to please horror ghouls who enjoy that sort of stuff. As the films would continue, the gore content would get greater and the stories a lot more interesting. But the first SAW is a great film that, while not perfect, will keep you entertained from beginning to end.