Sunday 28 September 2014

Saw (2004)

Stars: Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Michael Emerson, Tobin Bell, Ken Leung, Makenzie Vega, Shawnee Smith, Dina Meyer, Benito Martinez and Leigh Whannell
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.
It had been quite a while since I last saw Saw. It was released in 2004, while I saw it in 2005, probably as the word of mouth that quickly built around it had become substantial. While it cost a little over a million dollars to make, it grossed a hundred times that and its six sequels gradually built the franchise into the most successful at the box office of any such horror series. I was impressed, though the sequels gradually fed on each other incestuously and I haven't yet made it all the way through to the latest, Saw 3D, the seventh and currently final film in the series which was released in 2010. I hadn't revisited it since, until doing so around the time of its screening at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in 2013, which had executive producer and CEO of FearNet Peter Block in attendance. Eight years was long enough that plot details had either faded from memory or become blurred with the sequels. I remembered the final, particularly vicious twist, but I didn't remember the many others that preceded it.

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.
The other half ties to a police investigation, in which a couple of detectives try to find the Jigsaw Killer, an odd serial killer because he doesn't actually kill anyone, merely places them into darkly ironic situations where they die more often than not. Paul, a man who had attempted suicide by cutting his wrists, was put into a cage of razorwire and given two hours to tunnel a way through it to escape. Mark pretends to be ill to get other people's money, so wakes up with a poison running through his veins that he can counter by taking the antidote that's merely feet away in a safe. There are catches, of course: the combination is on the wall, but there are a heck of a lot of numbers to work through, the floor is covered in broken glass and he's doused in a flammable substance but has to use a candle to read what's on the walls. There has only been one survivor: Amanda, a drug addict, who could only escape the reverse bear trap attached to her head by carving the key out of the stomach of the paralysed man in her makeshift cell.

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.
There are major actors in the cast, but nobody really shines on the acting front. I appreciated the choice to tell this predominantly from the victims' point of view, an unusual but highly successful angle, but that means that as Dr Gordon, Cary Elwes is the closest thing we have to a lead and he's done far better work elsewhere. Critics have lambasted him for overdoing it here, but it isn't really that. Dr Gordon is a notably flawed character, a cheat and a liar who isn't particularly good at lying, which makes him seem deceptive all the time. No wonder Det Tapp never buys into him not being the Jigsaw Killer, even though he isn't, as his cop's instinct would be to distrust him. Sure, Elwes doesn't appear to be endowing this role with what we know he can do, but then he's playing a duplicitous character whose every action is a performance. If Dr Gordon was a better actor, then I might buy into Elwes not doing his job. As it stands, I'm unsure as to whether he doesn't do his job or whether he does it too well.

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.
One sure reason why the film did so well is its ending, which is one of the great twists of the modern era. It's been torn apart by many critics and with possible good reason, but I believe that it's easy to explain it without venturing into the dubious logic of conspiracy theorists. Then again, if I'm right, it would counter the general tone of control that pervades the picture. There are other things I'd complain about first. One is how it's impossible to figure everything out ourselves from what we're given early on; we're reliant on a steady stream of information throughout to fill in gaps. Another is the complexity of the film's structure which unfolds in an overly complex set of flashbacks, mostly to keep the stream of information flowing. It leads to the next, which is that the script is effectively playing with us just as much as the Jigsaw Killer is playing with his victims. Most annoying to me was how Wan and Whannell task us with figuring out their puzzle but deem us incapable of reading the periodic notes. In fact, that's not just annoying, it's insulting.

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.

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