Rated: R :: Released: 29 October 2004
Director: James Wan :: Starring: Leigh Whannell and Cary Elwes
By Michael David Sims
01 November 2004 — You can often judge the quality of a thriller / horror movie based on the instant reaction of the crowd. If they clap and hoot as the credits roll, chances are it wasn't that good. Actually, chances are it downright sucked. However, if they're rising to their feet and proclaim, "That sucked," my money's on the opposite. So when I saw Saw this weekend and the crowd erupted into fits of explosive claps and cheers, I knew it sucked.
Actually, I knew it sucked about ten minutes in. Which was sad because I really, really wanted to see this flick and really, really wanted to like it. The trailers and television spots looked wickedly cool in their own stylized way, and the concept is a writer's wet dream. Two guys wake up in a room, each finding himself chained to a pipe. To escape, they're told, one must kill the other... or his wife and child will suffer a horrible fate. To make matters worse, a dead body (an apparent suicide) lay between them in a large pool of blood. If Larry (Cary Elwes) is to kill Adam (Leigh Whannell; co-writer) he has to somehow reach the gun that is held limply in the palm of the suicide. To do so, he figures out (and this isn't a spoiler because it was in every damn trailer), Larry must use the rusty hacksaw at his side to cut through his own foot. (The blade is too weak to slice the thick chains.)
That is a concept you don't come across everyday, and could be made into a masterpiece if placed in the right hands. Unfortunately, Saw wasn't placed in the right hands. Director James Wan and Leigh Whannell co-wrote the story out of the need to put their newly acquired film degrees to work. (What else do you do after film school?) And therein lies the problem. These two young men stumbled upon the story with little to no experience, and, because of this, had no clue how to pull off such a grand idea. What could have been a bold character study (much like Open Water) was turned into a mishmash that couldn't decide what type of film it wanted to be. Is it horror... or a thriller... or maybe a cop drama? No one knows because it doesn't know.
When the film opens with Adam awaking in a bathtub and his discovery of Larry and the body, we suspect it might be a suspense thriller. Awakening to the unknown is always a good start for such a film, but as Larry quickly (much too quickly, I might add) realizes who they're captor is, we're flooded with flashbacks that introduce Detectives Tapp (Danny Glover) and Sing (Ken Leung) which leads us to believe it might become a cop drama / thriller. After all, why introduce the cops if they're not going to have an integral role in fleshing out this mystery?
It's through them that we learn of other sick crimes that were meant to teach the victims a lesson. An able-bodied, middleclass man slit his wrists for no apparent reason, and, so, he's entombed in a cage made of razor wire. If he is to survive the gas that is filling the room he must slit himself over and over as he climbs through the deadly wires. An arsonist is stripped nude and placed in a room with a safe. The floor is covered with glass and his body is slathered with a flammable jelly. Atop the safe is a very small candle. He is to use said candle to glean the combination from the walls. If he can do that, he will unlock the key that he needs to escape the small, dark room. If he's not careful with the candle, however, he'll go up in flames. A drug addict is strapped to chair and a giant "reverse bear trap" is wired into her jaw. If she does not cut the key from the belly of the man in the corner, the trap will tear her head into a pulpy mess.
Each of the three scenes provides a clue as to who the madman named Jigsaw is, but the detectives are so bent on investigating Larry (because his penlight was at the razor wire crime scene) they never really look elsewhere — even after his alibi has been corroborated; even after they nearly catch Jigsaw. It's here, in Jigsaw's lair, that the police story ends and we're left with two guys stuck in a room with nothing but their poorly written and delivered expositional dialog. (Truth be told, Whannell does well enough. It's Elwes who seems to mail-in his performance. And why wouldn't he? He knows he only took the gig for the payday.)
With the cops out of the way (which one suspects was only added for the star power of Danny Glover), Larry continues to fill the 100 minutes of screen time with more flashbacks, this time explaining his turbulent home life. And while this is supposed to make us sympathetic towards our protagonist (he tucks his daughter back in after she hears a man in her room), it does little to garner our sympathies when you realize he didn't check the closet like any caring father would. In moments like these (when you realize Larry isn't the picture perfect doctor and father he presents himself as) you come to realize that he isn't a likeable character, and therefore have trouble relating to and caring for him. Unlike the afore mentioned Open Water where we actually get to know these people, the characters of Saw give us little in the way of character. Larry is the overworked husband, Adam the do-anything-for-a-little-extra-cash photographer, and Tapp the obsessed cop. Unlike the script which can't decide what it wants to be, the characters have firmly rooted themselves in who they are and don't budge from their placement. They don't change or seem to learn anything, which is a prerequisite of any story — screen or print. And, oddly enough, goes against what Jigsaw is attempting to accomplish.
While it can be argued that he never kills people directly, Jigsaw places his victims in peril to teach them a lesson — mostly to cherish life. Adam and Larry, on the other hand, learn nothing nor does their predicament seem to provide them with anything to learn. Whereas the middleclass man and arsonist were placed in scenarios that were related to their sins (slit wrists and razor wire, arson and fire), the drug addict and our two trapped fellows seem to be randomly tossed into over-the-top predicaments with no rhyme or reason — other than sick, voyeuristic bloodlust. Again, the script doesn't know what it wants. Is Jigsaw teaching them a lesson, or is he a sick, bloodthirsty creep?
All that aside, worst of all is that Larry and Adam never seem to take their capture seriously — not even after Larry sees a frightening picture of his wife (Monica Potter) and daughter (Makenzie Vega). Never does he consider murdering Adam, which is surprising on two fronts. First, Larry seems to know the Jigsaw files inside and out, meaning he knows just how serious this guy is. Second, he's been told his wife and daughter will die if he does not kill Adam by a set time. Those two factors alone should and could have pushed Larry to at least consider reaching for the gun at least once, but he doesn't — at least not until the script needs him to.
Worse than that even is how Jigsaw seemingly acts as if he knows he's in a movie; as if he knows he's going to swerve an audience in the end. How he does this (along with many, many plot holes) will be left out for sake of not spoiling it, but suffice it to say he doesn't act like a person would in the real world — even psycho killers follow set rules and don't wear dark cloaks or grotesque masks with every step they take.
And while there is a lot to gripe about, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the few bright spots. First, and most importantly, it's a truly novel concept. No matter how it was executed, the writers need to be praised for taking such a risk. Second would have to be the lack of gore. Yeah — there are scenes with cut-up and chard corpses, but nothing you haven't see in CSI. In fact, the only truly bloody moment would have to be when the drug addict fishes the key out of the stomach of the body that's trapped in the room with her. Third, despite his often false bravado and unfunny quips, rookie actor Leigh Whannell outshines Cary Elwes every step of the way. (Then again, it could be said that Whannell acted his heart out because he didn't realize what a bad picture he was in, where Elwes did.) And then there was Makenzie Vega's heart-wrenching telephone conversation with her on-screen father. Much like people pegged Haley Joel Osment for stardom after his performance in The Sixth Sense, Vega's tears and whimpered cries for help are a sure sign of her future potential.
Despite those minor rays of sunshine, Saw just wasn't worth the effort. Maybe a sequel that learns from the mistakes of its predecessor or a Director's Cut DVD will make up for this mess, but don't hold your breath.
Stars: 1 of 5