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Review: “Saw”

Director: James Wan

Produced by: Gregg Hoffman, Mark Burg, Oren Koules

Written by: Leigh Whannell (screenplay), James Wan & Leigh Whannell (story)

Music by: Charlie Clouser

Starring: Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Michael Emerson, Ken Leung, Tobin Bell, Leigh Whannell

Year: 2004

I never thought I’d ever get the courage to watch a film in this series. The Saw franchise has been said to be the beginning of mainstream horror films becoming profoundly morbid with sadistic displays of gore and torture for gore and torture’s sake. The trend has become so prevalent that there’s even a mainstream term for this subgenre: “torture porn.” Lovely.

The thing that turned me off is that there’s nothing that appeals to me in simply watching characters die. Call me squeamish, I guess, but, I while I can’t say these films lack a purpsose, there’s still the simple fact that gore does not equate to the kinds of scares I expect from the horror genre. I’ll admit to having watched a few of the Final Destination films and coming out more or less entertained by them — in a superficial, stupid fun kind of way — but there’s somehow a difference between the rollercoaster thrill ride of watching the victims of the Final Destination films succumb one by one to the unseen presence of Death at every turn versus the reputation films like Saw and Hostel have for imitating a snuff film. Again, I know there’s often a self referential point to be made, but it doesn’t appeal to me. I don’t know if I could handle it. And, at the same time, though I know it’s hardly new ground for B-movies, I wonder if we possibly should be concerned about a society that takes pleasure from this kind of stuff without at least putting thought into what the film is trying to say. The fact that the first Saw has a reputation for mindless violence is proof enough that most audiences just don’t think of the meaning behind it all.

And that’s a shame, because Saw is actually a great horror film with a lot more brains actually in its head than spilling out than its six sequels would lead one to believe. Thanks in large part to my sister urging me to ignore my own squeamishness, I caved in and rented it.

It wasn’t immediately obvious, but the film’s reputation belies its surprisingly crafty plot. The film is tightly edited and makes great use of flashbacks to fill in the background of its characters. As for violence, there is a considerable amount of blood and some rather unsettling scenarios, but the film doesn’t revel in them, and instead uses the audience’s own reactions to put them in the characters’ place.

The cruel “games” that the film’s villain, the Jigsaw Killer, puts his victims through are the kinds of traps James Bond villains would come up with if they had a more sadistic streak, only Jigsaw intentionally gives them the chance of living through their ordeal — provided they can endure the unspeakable tortures of the games. Jigsaw, given his name due to the fact that he takes a puzzle piece shaped chunk of flesh from the less fortunate subjects, truly thinks of himself as a sort of philosopher, and his contraptions are his tablets for the world to study.

The film largely follows his latest two victims, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes, The Princess Bride) and photographer Adam (Leigh Whannell, who also wrote the screenplay), as they awaken to find themselves chained at opposite ends of a filthy bathroom. Their only company is the bloodied corpse of a previous victim, guarding a revolver and tape recorder just out of their reach. The rules of the game are simple: Dr. Lawrence has until 6:00 to kill Adam, or he will lose his wife and daughter. The two men also find two hacksaws, too dull to cut through their chains, but just right for cutting through their own feet. That’s truly the challenge of the game: Does Dr. Gordon love his family enough to cut through his own foot, grab the gun, and kill Adam?

The film doesn’t actually give up any obvious hints about its mysteries. Red herrings are tossed out left and right, of course, but they never left me feeling cheated. Through the flashbacks we also meet Detectives David Tapp and Steven Sing, played by Danny Glover and Ken Leung (Lost, X-Men: The Last Stand) respectively. The two have been covering the famed Jigsaw murders for quite some time now, and as Dr. Gordon’s path crosses with theirs, the background story is filled in and informs the story going on with the two captives.

The cast’s performances are fairly solid throughout, though perhaps a bit overacted at times. I could easily dismiss it as being in line with the rest of the film’s theatricality, however. Cary Elwes, who is usually better known for lighter, often goofier roles in films like The Princess Bride and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, alternates between intelligent but arrogant doctor, hysterical family man, and helpless victim without ever seeming like he’s falling out of character. Screenwriter Leigh Whannel comes off as whiny, but not necessarily annoying, and you can hardly blame his character for falling into hysterics. Considering that he didn’t even have to play the role, he fills it out well enough. And, if you’re worried about it, the gore is mostly kept off screen, with just enough shown to give you an idea of what’s happening. As always, though, what’s in your imagination can often be more disturbing than what’s put on screen. Your sanity may vary.

Overall, this film isn’t just about the deaths, but what the characters have done to find themselves in their predicament and what they’ll do to get out of it, the cost of freedom be damned. It’s an endurance test that allows us to vicariously experience the same dilemma… only without the risk of losing your life. The story actually lives up to the edge-of-your-seat advertising and all the hype that helped spawn the whole franchise, and it may well have one of the best horror film endings I’ve ever seen, possibly worthy of joining the ranks of Psycho and The Sixth Sense and their own out-of-left-field twists.

And, though I never planned on ever going any further in the series, my sister also insists that the second film is well worth my attention. Perhaps I’ll have to listen to her more often about these kinds of things…

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 4 / 5

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  1. Anonymous
    October 4, 2011 at 12:38 am

    I can’t do horror films so I can’t appreciate this film.

    • Anonymous
      October 4, 2011 at 12:39 am

      Well written review though…

      • CJ Stewart
        October 4, 2011 at 12:59 am

        Why, thank you, Anonymous! I actually don’t necessarily gravitate towards the horror genre, either, especially, as I said, the torture ones, as well as the supernatural ones, but I’m intending to broaden my horizons. So far, I’ve enjoyed this film and, earlier this year, I discovered Poltergeist, so I think I can say I’ve been pretty successful in my attempts! I’ll be doing more horror reviews this month. Next is going to be for the original version of The Last House on the Left, which wasn’t my cup of tea but is considered a slasher genre classic.

  2. Erin
    January 9, 2012 at 8:03 am

    It’s so refreshing to see someone give Saw a chance for a change! I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people rant about how “gory”, “pointless”, and “sadistic” it is, without actually having seen it for themselves, and basing their argument solely on what their brother’s best friend’s uncle, who saw a trailer for it, said.

  1. January 10, 2012 at 10:57 pm
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