Saw (2004) / Thriller-Horror

MPAA Rated: R for graphic violence and language (originally NC-17, but edited to an R)
Running Time: 100 min.

Cast: Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Leigh Whannell, Ken Leung, Dina Meyer, Monica Potter, Makenzie Vega, Shawnee Smith, Paul Gutrecht
Director: James Wan
Screenplay: Leigh Whannell

Review published October 20, 2004

This gimmick-laden thriller wants to be Se7en so much, I'm surprised it wasn't called S7w. 

Saw is one of those evolutionary horror films, rather than revolutionary, but it's the kind of movie that genre lovers will eat up with relish and proclaim as one of the best films of the year.  I won't go down that road -- not even close.  In fact, while I like the kinetic direction and the interesting opening premise, this one managed to lose my suspension of disbelief surprisingly early.  After that, this "clever" thriller becomes more and more ridiculous, and quite distasteful, until it ends with a few too many twists and turns, letting you know that the creators intend little more than another  mind-f*ck thriller. 

Saw opens in a dank and filth-ridden bathroom, where two men on opposite ends are chained down by the leg with seemingly no way to escape.  One is a doctor named Lawrence (Elwes, The Princess Bride) and the other is a young man named Adam (Whannell, The Matrix Reloaded).  Neither knows how or why they are there.  In between them is a dead body lying in a pool of blood with a tape recorder in one hand and a guy in the other.  Each man has a tape on their person which, once the tape recorder is secured, reveals that Lawrence is to kill Adam before a certain time or his wife and daughter will be killed, and he'll be left to die there.  How he can do this is a mystery, although a saw might come in handy. 

Purely on a conceptual level, Saw gets a big lift from its engaging premise, and so long as the sinister events that occur during the course of the film are shrouded in mystery, a great deal of suspense, shock and intrigue is achieved.  The real issue at hand for most viewers is where these events begin to unravel the tightness of the plot, and this point will vary among many.  Some will probably think it's a crock from the outset, some may swallow all they have to offer, while a good many fans of visceral horror will probably not care at all about the plot, just entertained by the spastic direction and grisly depictions of murders and suicides.

I can't review this film for everyone -- it has its audience, and many will love it.  I can only speak for myself, and for readers who generally agree with me by stating that Saw just doesn't have the creative oomph to deliver on the ambitiousness generated by the high concept premise.  Normally I try to weigh movies on their own terms, but director James Wan (Dead Silence, Death Sentence) and writer/co-star Leigh Whannell just steal too much of their style from the works of David Fincher (Se7en, The Game), and the constant reminders to the older, better films makes Saw feel like a b-list knock off. 

Let's face it -- Cary Elwes and Danny Glover (Predator 2, Lethal Weapon 4) are no match in injecting their characters with believable personalities as Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman did in the far superior Se7en, and without any real feeling for the people caught in the web of the grotesque all we're left with is a mechanical plot and a display of gruesome events.  Elwes is a fine comedic or light drama actor, but is in way over his head in trying to evoke a look of gut-wrenching horror or fear, and the film suffers as a whole for it.

Unlike Se7en, Saw's only asset is its gimmickry and gore, both of which are amplified to the maximum quotient allowed and not inspire belly laughs from the audience.  In terms of atmospheric tension and stomach-churning acts of sadism, it's an effective piece, but coupled with the cheesy acting, music video style direction, and over-the-top delivery, the elements tend to cancel each other out for more discerning viewers.  This one's strictly for the splatter-house crowd, or people who love horror for shock value over suspense, so if repulsive imagery and acts of terror turn you on, you'll get more than your money's worth.  For me, I'd like to change the generic title of "Saw" to the more reflective title of "Wish I Hadn't Seen".

Qwipster's rating:

2004 Vince Leo