|This film was an official selection at the 9th annual International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.|
What I discovered was that it remains an impressive film, notably better than the sequels I've seen thus far, though it hasn't entirely stood the test of time. The fundamental concept still stands up well, a neatly twisted one that has a couple of men wake up in a bathroom, chained to separate walls with hacksaws provided to free themselves, not ones strong enough to sever their chains but ones that will cut through their legs. This is only the first sadistic torment with which they're faced as they gradually discover why they're there, how they're connected and what else might be going on that they can't yet see from their perspective. This concept stands up today, even if it served to introduce the world to the modern torture porn genre. This first film isn't as gory as its sequels and the complexity isn't overwhelming, remaining close enough to the simple vision of its twisted mastermind to ring true. I agree with creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell that it wasn't torture porn yet, even if I don't agree that it didn't get there later.
This one tells two stories that gradually become one. The first revolves around the bathroom, with its two questioning captives and its bloody corpse in the middle of the floor between them that they can't reach. It's a intriguing puzzle, not merely for Dr Lawrence Gordon and Adam Stanheight, the two men inside it, but for us as well. Of course, Lawrence and Adam have more motivation than cinematic inquisitiveness pushing them to figure out why they're there but their actions are cleverly tailored not only to drive their story forward but to draw us into the picture. There are two quick notes that do this very well indeed. Dr Gordon realises that there's a purpose behind their kidnapping and captivity. After all, they could easily have been killed too, but they weren't. 'They must want something from us,' he points out, prompting us to wonder about where the story will take us. Then he notices that the clock on the wall of this wrecked room is brand new, meaning not only that time is important but also that we need to look as much as think.
We soon find that there's already a tie between the two stories, beyond the obvious fact that this pair of captives are clearly going through the latest of the Jigsaw Killer's ironic setups. By this point, we've been let in on how it will work: Lawrence has been given until six o'clock to kill Adam or his wife and daughter will be murdered in his stead. The tie is that Dr Gordon was a former suspect in the police investigation. Sure, he was quickly cleared of being the Jigsaw Killer without any doubt, but the real mastermind behind these cruel acts of irony still chose to set him up. Certainly putting his family on the line is ironic because the alibi that cleared his name also exposed his infidelity; the wife he now has to commit murder to save is the wife he's been cheating on. And so we watch Lawrence and Adam try to figure out a way to escape while hoping that former Det David Tapp, now clearly obsessed with the case, will find them first. And we try to figure out the connections before Wan and Whannell show us their finished puzzle.
However much they reject the suggestion that this film is torture porn, it's impossible to talk about Saw without talking about the sadistically intricate but ingenious traps that the Jigsaw Killer constructs. They dominate the film far more than its stars, the acting or any other cinematic angle. For a start, it's an odd hybrid of horror and thriller that's never entirely comfortable in either genre. It's more gory and sadistic than thrillers tend to be, which has led to frequent and fair comparisons to David Fincher's Seven, and it doesn't play up the tension as a thriller would; we rarely see the clock, for instance. However, it's not a conventional horror movie either. It's not scary, for a start, even if the jump scares are clearly supposed to catch us unawares. It's better as a thriller than a horror movie, especially as it plays it straight, even if a couple of elements threaten to send it into camp horror territory: mostly Adam's occasional attempts at poor humour and a freaky puppet unnamed in this film but known outside it as Billy.
Leigh Whannell's acting isn't up to his writing, as his script is much more successful than his performance as Adam. He was the first actor cast, having played the lead of David in the 2003 short, also titled Saw, in the role that became Amanda in this feature. Much of the reason that the film stayed independent is that director James Wan wasn't willing to lose Whannell as Adam; while another actor might have been better in the role, that choice indirectly led to many of the successes of the film. With Wan unable to do much of what he wanted because of the restrictions of budget, cast and time, he found himself gradually forced to use his imagination to make everything work. Unusable shots became still photographs or footage from a surveillance camera. The end result ws something that's 'more gritty and rough around the edges', which helped it feel real. No wonder the underlying theme is one of control; Wan and Whannell were constantly fighting to keep control of their project and then the film that they wanted to make.
If Cary Elwes got the opportunity to depict a man who believes he has control over his life, even though it isn't deserved, and who rails the most against the Jigsaw Killer taking that control away from him, the rest of the cast didn't get those chances. Danny Glover shot all his scenes as Det Tapp in two days; while he's far from bad in the role, it deserved to be more substantial. I like that Tapp isn't the lead character, as he would have been in most takes on this story, but he deserved better than he got. Dina Meyer is hardly in the movie as another detective and neither is Tobin Bell, who would soon dominate the franchise. Michael Emerson is far too overt as Zep Hindle, one of Gordon's orderlies who gets hauled into the mix too. It's Shawnee Smith and Ken Leung who impress most in smaller roles as Amanda and Det Sing respectively. Each of these characters returned in future films, though sometimes only tangentially. Bell is in all seven pictures; Smith, Meyer and Emerson four each, Glover and Leung three and Elwes in two.
I stand by my rating of Saw as a capable and original thriller, especially considering its budget, even if its varied issues become more and more apparent with repeat viewings. I'm hardly going to complain much about a movie that spurs us to think earning close to a hundred times what it cost to produce. It certainly deserves to be judged on its own merits and not merely as part of a franchise which soon came to value the cruel ingenuity of its traps over clear stories and its characters, which are less believable as the films ran on. It also can't be judged on its legacy, which directly led to more overt examples of the torture porn genre. I firmly believe that it's been mostly forgotten in favour of its even more successful sequels and I wonder how it'll be received when it's re-released in theatres this Hallowe'en for its tenth anniversary. It may bring some respect back to the franchise, which is far more successful commercially than critically, but it may disappoint people used to the more extreme material in the sequels.