Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Strong Grisly Violence and Language
Directed by: James Wan
Written by: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannell, Tobin Bell, Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Michael Emerson, Ken Leung, Makenzie Vega & Shawnee Smith
The 2000s were an interesting time for horror cinema. Though many people are quick to say that the decade didn’t pump out many original horror flicks, it seemed like audiences got a solid amount of surprisingly great remakes (along with plenty of crappy cash-ins), cool indie fare and plenty of foreign scares. 2004’s SAW falls into that second category. After premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, SAW grossed 55 times its one-million budget at the U.S. box office and spawned the biggest horror franchise of the 2000’s. Whether or not that’s a positive thing is subjective, but I personally loved the entire series as a teenager and they’ve held up as guilty pleasures for me as an adult. Having now revisited SAW for the first time in years, I noticed that its faults definitely stick out now and yet, it still stands as a disturbingly creepy horror-thriller.
Photographer Adam (Leigh Whannell) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) wake up in an abandoned bathroom. Leaving isn’t an option because both men are chained to pipes on opposite sides of the room. A corpse, a tape recorder, and a gun lie in the middle of the bathroom. After some crafty maneuvering, the men soon discover that they are the latest victims in the sick “games” of a serial killer known as Jigsaw. To win their game, one man must retrieve the gun in the middle of the room and shoot/kill the other. Don’t worry though, because Jigsaw has left them a gift: hacksaws. These aren’t strong enough to cut through chains and are strong enough to cut through bone. You get where this is heading. With a ticking clock, the men must try to figure out of a way to escape…or face their grisly dilemma head-on.
SAW’s premise is wicked and simple, arguably too simple. If this were only 103 minutes of two men sitting a room with this insane scenario, then the viewer would probably die of boredom or find themselves depressed beyond belief. Director James Wan and screenwriter/actor Leigh Whannell wisely throw in flashbacks to subvert the viewer’s attention to backstories behind both men and their captor. The script also has a subplot involving a rugged cop who’s on the trail of Jigsaw and hostage shenanigans at Dr. Gordon’s apartment (his wife and daughter are being held as “prizes” to be won or lost). The way in which SAW slowly puts together its twisted puzzle of a story is kind of amazing. The flashbacks slowly fill the viewer in on who the two men are and give little clues that ratchet up the tension to high levels.
The Jigsaw Killer’s gruesome traps (which became more and more over-the-top with each passing installment) are realistic(ish) and leveled in this first film. The games are deadly scenarios with horrifying hazards (e.g. razor wire, broken glass, flammable goo, etc.) and the only big device used is a jaw-ripping reverse bear-trap that has become a symbol of this torture-porn franchise ever since this film’s release. The scenes with Jigsaw’s games are brief, but leave a shudder-inducing impact. A scene that has always made me squeamish involves a razor wire maze and a man stripped down to his undies. That’s truly terrifying beyond words and the verbal description of the crime scene makes the me cringe more than any gory visual could (though rest assured, there are definitely moments of gore).
Two big problems muddy SAW’s many positive qualities. The film frequently relies on frenetic editing, which makes intense moments seem more like a heavy metal music video than a horror movie. The gritty atmosphere and visuals keep things appropriately creepy, but the editing occasionally detracts from the film as a whole. The second issue is far more egregious. Most of the acting in SAW is terrible, like embarrassingly bad and unconvincing during many moments. Not every actor is terrible, because Danny Glover is well-cast and a few of the supporting characters have their moments. However, Cary Elwes should be ashamed of his unconvincing American accent, unbelievable mood swings, and hammy line delivery. He’s horrible in damn near every scene he’s in. Meanwhile, it’s fairly obvious that Leigh Whannell was new to acting in 2003 because he’s just as annoying as Elwes. Whannell has the excuse of being a newbie though, which makes Cary Elwes seem even more awful by comparison.
SAW has problems that cannot be ignored (frenetic editing and bad acting), but the plot, suspense and genuinely terrifying conclusion still holds up over a decade later (feeling old yet?). This is a rare case where great writing and terrifying ideas outshine crappy performances and amateur filmmaking. Though it’s not the stellar gory scarefest that I remember adoring as a teenager, I will still attest that 2004’s SAW is a good horror film. It’s a creepy indie effort with lots of disturbing scenarios, smart writing, a nightmare-inducing ending (I still get chills when I see it), and noticeable flaws.