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Too often these days Hollywood likes to pull its punches. Why have a dark and brooding, adult thriller when a few cuts can make a watered-down product to pull in the teen market and add to the final gross? Hey, it works for Paul WS Anderson! Personally I prefer my action dark, dirty and grim. So it is that Lions Gate only cut just enough out of Saw to stop in getting the infamous NC-17 rating. Good work chaps.
Saw opens as two men wake up in a squalid rundown old bathroom on what appears to be an abandoned warehouse. Dr Lawrence Gordon (Elwes) and Adam (Whannel) are chained by the ankle to pipes at opposite ends of the room and have no apparent memory of how they got there or of who the other is. Between them lies a man in a pool of blood; a gun in one hand and a tape recorder in the other. As the two men begin to comprehend their predicament, Dr Gordon, realises that they may be the next victims of a notorious serial killer known only as Jigsaw.
The Jigsaw killer never directly kills his victims. He instead places them within elaborately gruesome traps which he views as giving each victim a valuable life lesson – survive and you’ll appreciate what you’ve got a little more. However, chances of survival are often slim, so far only one victim has survived. Gordon knows of Jigsaw because five month previous he was a prime suspect in the case, being grilled by Detectives Tapp (Glover) and Sing (Leung). He was released after his alibi for one of the murders checked out.
After playing tapes given to them by the distorted-voiced killer, the pair find out that Dr Gordon has six hours to kill Adam or Jigsaw will murder his wife and daughter. As the men struggle to find a way out, new clues and puzzles emerge, as do facts that slowly reveal the two men may not be as unconnected as they first seemed. This puts a different perspective on their situation.
There is no melodramatic lead-in to Saw, it throws you straight into the middle of the story and never lets go till the final frame. The majority of the movie plays out in a harshly fluorescent “cell” with all the other action, save the final act, being told through flashbacks. This can make Saw seem strangely stagy, especially in the extended opening scene. It’s an unusual approach but it works well as the movie never once drags.
The flashbacks primarily focus on the detectives’ search for the killer as it goes tragically wrong. Although Danny Glover’s role amounts to nothing more than a supporting character, it’s nice to see him in a good movie for a change and not some lame fishing comedy with Joe Pesci. These scenes are all shot in dank, murky greens and yellows, and are probably the biggest contributor to this movie’s association with Se7en. It’s a fair comparison in visual style, if not execution. It is here, however, than Whannel’s script suffers most, relying a little too much on rule-bending cop stereotypes and a bit of convenience.
Director James Wan handles everything surprisingly well in his debut picture. He never gives anything away too soon, leaving the viewer just confused enough to be intrigued without letting them know everything, even if they think they do. And just when it looks like Saw is going down the road of cliché it pulls something out the bag. If anything can be criticized, it’s Wan’s propensity for using hyper-kinetic fast-cut scenes set to rock music to add a sense of urgency to the proceedings. These can occasionally work, like during some of the trap sequences, but in one sequence in particular this is used to horrible effect in substitution for a proper car chase. I know money was tight, and to Saw’s credit, for the most part it does an excellent job of masking this fact, but surely there was a better way to handle this than an awkward and jarring scene.
The only other criticism worth leveling, and maybe the most serious, is against that of the acting of some of the film’s leads. While for the most part, both men handle their roles well, there are a couple of moments where they completely drop the ball. At one point an impactful and seriously emotional scene actually had my audience laughing. That’s never a good thing, especially coming from an actor who’s been in the business over 20 years.
Saw is not for everyone. It can be gruesome and brutal, if that’s your thing, but that makes up a very small part of what it otherwise an interesting psychological thriller. It’s not perfect; with a little less hamming from some of the leads and a little script tweaking it could have been an excellent movie. But in a season full of unashamedly awful R-rated movies clearly aimed at 13 year olds (like Resident Evil: Apocalypse), Saw is a refreshingly grim and cynical film for adults only.