Saw was supposed to have been the best thriller I’d seen in years. I mean, while critics may have roundly dismissed it as brutal, abrasive, and irredeemable rubbish, fellow horror fans praised the films clever screenplay (co-written by director Wan and co-star Whannell), intense visual style, and…well…the very same brutal, abrasive, and irredeemable qualities the critics despised. By all accounts, this is the kind of film that should be right up my alley.
Sad thing is I’ve been up that alley before; several times, in fact. It’s still dark and dingy, and the shadows still threaten to enshroud the darkest of souls, waiting to pounce on the unsuspecting passers-by, but I’m a regular, here. This neighborhood doesn’t bother me.
Maybe that’s why I felt deflated when I was halfway through the film, and found that not only was I not shocked by any of it; I actually thought this Saw was a bit…well…dull!
Two men awaken in one of those hopelessly begrimed bathrooms that only exist in the minds of horror film set designers, replete with feces stained walls, toilets overflowing with the stuff of Mr.Clean’s nightmares, and a dead body lying in a pool of its own blood in the center. The men, a doctor named Lawrence (Elwes), and a young, seemingly clueless kid named Adam (Whannell), are chained at the ankle to pipes at opposite sides of the room. As the two are presented with clues as to why they are where they are, Lawrence begins to draw parallels to a series of bizarre murders of which he was once considered a suspect. Through flashbacks, Lawrence explains the modus operandi of the infamous Jigsaw Killer, which, in and of itself, is something of a misnomer. You see, the Jigsaw Killer has never killed anyone. He simply provides the means in the guise of elaborately planned and constructed machinations of death. However, he also provides a way out. His victims can choose to die, or they can choose to die trying. And, in the off chance that they actually survive, they are not only free, but, in his twisted mind, all-the- better for it.
Lawrence becomes a suspect when a pen light belonging to him shows up at one of the crime scenes, and lead Detective Tapp (Glover) knows he has his man, even if the alibis and evidence prove otherwise. When Tapp becomes obsessed with the case, he sets out to prove Lawrence’s guilt on his own, but the Jigsaw Killer has something else in mind, and gives Lawrence a deadline to make a choice of his own: kill Adam, and go free, or let his family suffer the consequences.
Saw has all of the necessary ingredients for a solid serial killer flick, but none of them are particularly fresh or interesting enough to change the recipe. The film simply takes what better examples of the genre have left lying around, and reassembles them into a mildly entertaining film that would have probably been a lot better had half the energy and attention to detail given to concocting the Jigsaw Killer’s methods of murder been rationed out to other aspects of the production.
Instead, it seems as though writing and performances were something of an afterthought; as if they would somehow be overshadowed by the “ingenious” concept. However, it’s the script and the acting that ultimately sink the film. The cops spout painfully clichéd hard-boiled dialogue, and characters do stupid things (Tapp’s reasoning for hiding as opposed to simply blasting the killer at a very opportune moment is a complete head-scratcher) that are obviously done to pad up a thin premise.
With the exception of a very good debut from Whannell and the always-dependable Glover (who basically plays the same whispery/weary cop we’ve seen from him a half-dozen times before, but at least he does it well) the performances range from poor (Monica Potter as Lawrence’s estranged wife) to downright horrible (Cary Elwes, who is the source of much unintentional laughter), and one wonders what would have been had there not have only been a better cast, but a more experienced eye behind the camera rather than the novice Wan. While the director delivers the requisite amount of MTV style edits, green fog, and flickering lights, the film doesn’t have any more or less visual flare than your average episode of CSI. This isn’t to say Wan is unskilled, but I just can’t understand why so many people found this movie to be such a visual feat when, at least in my opinion, it simply isn’t.
The DVD from Lion’s Gate features a few extras that seem more focused on the two music videos that accompany the film rather than the film itself, but there is a short mini-featurette called “Sawed Off” that offers a glimpse into the making of the movie. There’s also a commentary by Wan and Whannell, trailers, and a stills gallery. All of this reeks of a “Special Edition” on the horizon, especially seeing as how there is an uncut version of the film currently selling in the U.K. (don’t get too excited, however, as it’s only nine seconds longer than this theatrical version), so make of that what you will.
I know it sounds as if I’m being hard on Saw, and I probably am. I tend to do that with films that ride into my living room on a foamy white wave of hype only to wipe out on the rocks of my shattered expectations. Saw is that sort of film. It’s not bad, but it’s not great, and all I could think about afterward was where I’d left my copy of Se7en.