Saw (2004) Movie Review

The American horror film has been in a slump for the last few years, drowned in a murky sea of cash hungry sequels, gimmicky pseudo-villains, and castrated remakes of Asian horror films. Therefore, it is little wonder that “Saw” has been awaited with such rabid anticipation, a film that supposedly offers fans a diabolical mix of bloody sadism and nail-biting and intelligent plotting. The question is, can “Saw” deliver? Simply put, the answer is a resounding ‘no’.

Whilst it is a step in the right direction, managing to avoid several of the worst cliché haunting the genre, it is ultimately far too pedestrian, and shows a worrying lack of imagination whenever it strays from its central ideas. Despite having a potentially gripping premise, the film quickly loses focus, suffers from a tired, predictable structure, and loses much of its impact due to James Wan’s over-stylized direction and inappropriate use of heavy metal music.

Since “Saw” is clearly very proud of its would-be labyrinth plot, I will be fair and just give the bare bones. It does have a strong opening, as two men wake up and find themselves in a filthy bathroom, chained to the walls on opposite sides of the room. In the middle of the room lies a dead man with a hole in his head and a gun in his hand. The two captives are Lawrence (Cary Elwes), a doctor, and Adam (Leigh Whannell), who we learn more about as things progress. Neither knows each other, nor do they know how they arrived in the room.

Quickly, they discover that they are in fact victims of the ‘Jigsaw Killer’, a psychopath who manipulates people into killing themselves by forcing them to commit horrific acts of self-preservation. As the awful reality of their situation dawns on the two captives, lone detective Tapp (Danny Glover) is following an obscure series of clues, making him the two men’s only hope of escape.

This is obviously an inspired and shocking way to open a film — bleak, visceral, and promising a great deal. Sadly, “Saw” cannot maintain this level of fiendishness, and after too short a time, it seems to run out of ideas, and leaves the room. It is at this point that things go badly — for the viewer in particular. The bulk of the film consists of a series of flashbacks, as the two men attempt to try and work out why they have been imprisoned. This is a terrible miscalculation, as the flashbacks are generally uninteresting domestic scenes which are quite often unimportant to the plot as a whole.

The flashbacks not only slows things down, but worse still, they are time and time again inserted just as tensions in the room are running high, which leads to the impression that the film is unable to sustain its momentum — or is simply just lazy. As a result of this, it certainly feels as though Wan had a great idea for a handful of sadistic short scenes, but not for an actual feature length film. As the over-long running time drags on, even the time spent in the room becomes increasingly predictable and dull, before suddenly lurching into a tacked on ending which in hindsight makes little sense.

Another large problem looms in the unwieldy, bloated shape of Wan’s direction. The film is packed with a series of tired, overused visual techniques which will be all too recognizable to genre fans, with an overabundance of neon, shaking faces, blurred glimpses of gore, and a too frequently seen puppet which has been lifted straight from Argento’s classic “Deep Red”. This is incredibly annoying, especially during some of the flashback murder scenes, as Wan insists on throwing in a few seconds of sped up film and a blast of heavy metal music.

More than anything, this is self-defeating, as for a film that, like the classic “Se7en”, contains very little actual gore, it completely annihilates any kind of atmosphere, visceral or psychological, which has been built up. This is a shame, as the film would probably have worked much better had Wan had the convictions to stick to a more subtle framing instead of employing cheap tricks to fool viewers into thinking something awful is happening. Loud filmmaking should never be mistaken for skillful filmmaking, and sadly “Saw” proves this point repeatedly.

A final nail in the coffin is the acting, which to be blunt, is awful. Cary Elwes (“The Princess Bride”) is completely unbelievable as the doctor, and his screaming never seems more than the whine of a man who has merely been inconvenienced. Glover, too, is poor, mumbling and lurching around as if he were indeed ‘too old for this sh*t’. Their performances, coupled with a needlessly theatrical turn from the killer, complete with ‘phantom of the opera’ style cape and hood, add a touch of hysterical farce to the whole shabby mess.

Is there anything good to say about “Saw”? Well, I guess some of the scenes in the room are quite effective, at least when Wan can keep his hyperactive camera proclivities under control. Similarly, although gorehounds will feel badly let down, there are a few moments of genuine nastiness, mostly in the moments free from sound and pseudo-fury. The film does deserve some praise for having a non-teen cast and for at least attempting something new. Though really, I’m grasping at straws, as none of these vaguely positive aspects are enough to make it all worthwhile.

Ultimately, “Saw” is a very great disappointment indeed, a film which promises so much, but which continually lets the viewer down. Though it styles itself as a raw slice of unrelenting horror, it is in fact a tame and poorly plotted mess that loses its way early on, and lacks even the saving grace of providing genuine shocks.

James Wan (director) / James Wan (story), Leigh Whannell (screenplay)
CAST: Leigh Whannell …. Adam
Cary Elwes …. Dr. Lawrence Gordon
Danny Glover …. Detective David Tapp
Ken Leung …. Detective Steven Sing
Dina Meyer …. Kerry

Buy Saw on DVD