Saw (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Saw is for hard-gore horror aficionados only. To appreciate Saw in its full gory, you have to have a penchant for productions that bask in the traditions of the Grand Guignol. While most of the film relies more on psychological tension and terror, there's plenty of gut-churning, visceral violence, especially during the final 15 minutes. That's the time period when James Wan's otherwise compelling feature goes a little too far over the top, veering out of its David Fincher-inspired darkness into the realm of self-parody. There's lots of blood, plenty of hysteria, and perhaps one twist too many. On the strength of a grippingly original concept and 90 strong minutes of building action, Saw gets a recommendation, but only if you like this kind of thing.

The movie opens with Adam (Leigh Whannell, who also wrote the screenplay) and Lawrence (Cary Elwes) chained to pipes in the bowels of a long-forgotten bathroom that hasn't been cleaned in at least 20 years and resembles a charnel house. Their shackles give them limited mobility - not enough to reach each other or the bloody corpse that lies on the floor between them. Neither has a clear memory of how they got here, and neither can answer the key question of "Why me?" Their captor has left them clues and tools - an unloaded gun, tantalizingly out of reach; a tape recorder; two saws; a cell phone; and two cigarettes. It's all part of a game, and if Adam and Lawrence don't play it right, one or both of them will end up dead. And, for Lawrence, the danger extends beyond his subterranean cell - his wife (Monica Potter) and daughter (Makenzie Vega) are in danger, as well.

It turns out that Adam and Lawrence are the playthings of a unique serial killer ("The Jigsaw Killer") - one who sets up his victims to bring about their own ends. And, while the perpetrator is stalking Adam and Lawrence, he in turn is being tracked by a bitter ex-cop (Danny Glover) who's looking to avenge his late partner. To say more would be criminal. Saw does an excellent job of building tension until the bubble bursts during the climax. There are occasional missteps that betray Wan's newness to feature directing: the pacing isn't always perfect, there are some rough edits, and he is sometimes too enamored of showy camera flourishes. Plus, Leigh Whannell's dialogue is in need of an upgrade. Saw is constructed like a jigsaw puzzle (mimicking the nickname of the killer), with each scene revealing a new piece. This non-linear approach allows us to grow a realization of how deadly an antagonist Adam and Lawrence's captor is. This is an intelligent psychopath, not someone who will hold a gun on a cop while explaining his motives and waiting to be outsmarted and brought down.

Although Wan's primary aim is to build suspense through uncertainty, he doesn't skimp when it comes to showing gruesome images. Although Wan would probably relish the comparison, this isn't a Psycho or Halloween - films that rely upon the imagination of the viewer to conjure up unthinkable images. The original cut of Saw received an NC-17 rating from the MPAA for its unrelenting gore. Some of the most graphic moments were eliminated, but what remains is still about as hard an R as can be found. Sensitive viewers may find themselves momentarily turning away from the screen during one especially harrowing sequence.

The lead role belongs to Cary Elwes, a recognizable character actor who gets a rare opportunity to headline a cast. Except for a few moments near the end, Elwes plays his part with confidence and conviction. He is paired with screenwriter Whannell, whose middle-of-the-road performance is solid enough to allow us to accept the character. Supporting actors include Danny Glover in a turn that's almost embarrassingly bad, Monica Potter, and, in a small role, Dina Meyer.

The horror genre has become a minefield of clich├ęs and recycled plots, making it difficult to generate enthusiasm about any new release. New hooks are a premium commodity, so when someone like Wan finds one, it's easy to overlook freshman mistakes. With its freshness and energy, Saw bucks the horror trend towards formula story-telling and proves that enough qualities in the "plus column" can overcome a weak ending. Those who see this movie during its North American opening weekend of October 29-31 will be in for an unsettling Halloween.

Saw (United States, 2004)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2004-10-29
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1