A part of the marketing campaign for Saw has relied on comparisons made between the film and the 1995 hit Seven, a fellow edgy psychological thriller with horror movie ideals. Unfortunately, Saw is not Seven. It’s got plenty of the intensity, but is for the most part a pretty dumb movie.
As with many horror/thrillers, Saw puts regular people in horrific situations and lets the audience watch their reactions. But in Saw, the characters’ reactions are often times preposterous and extremely exaggerated versions of what would actually happen in real life. The filmmakers could justify this by saying that the setting is so unpredictable that it’s not fair to call it overacting, but some of the dialogue and decisions by characters are absurd.
On the surface, it’s psychologically terrifying, but most viewers could probably talk themselves out of being scared later on. Thankfully, the film holds back on the jumpy-scariness that has plagued modern horror films lately, and depends on its plot to be scary enough.
The story begins with two seemingly unconnected people waking up in a dilapidated public bathroom, each chained to pipes on opposite sides of the room. In the middle of the room lies the corpse of a man who has apparently shot himself in the head rather recently. One of the men is a middle-aged doctor, the other a dorky 20-something hipster. They start discovering clues in the room – things in their pockets, writing on the walls – that allow them to figure out more about the situation they’re in.
The film later reveals the man behind this, a serial murderer called the Jigsaw Killer. Jigsaw, a faceless psycho who’s become commonplace in these types of films, comes up with unique ways for his victims to die. One man is given a short amount of time to claw his way through a maze of barbed wire before the only exit slams shut. Another has a metal clamp attached to her face that will shred her jaw in half if she doesn’t rip the key out of the stomach of a semi-conscious man in under a minute.
Fun stuff, right? Finding new and exciting ways for people to get killed is a staple of the horror/thriller genre, evidenced by the popularity of the Final Destination films. Part of the reason Saw is such an engrossing film is that the viewer never knows what to expect. First-time director James Wan keeps the intensity level peaked for most of the film, and so no one will sink into boredom or watch-checking time.
The negatives go back to the dialogue and the acting. Normally refined thespian Cary Elwes (Shadow of a Vampire) plays the doctor character as a really over-the-top horror movie victim. Call it overacting or call it an honest reaction from someone placed in one of the worst situations, but Elwes goes overboard in a few scenes and makes some intense moments almost laughable. His counterpart is newcomer Leigh Whannell, also the film’s co-writer. His character is a bizarre, 20-something slacker who appears to be picked directly out of a Kevin Smith film and dropped into the horror world. Whannell’s dialogue is sometimes embarrassingly unrealistic, but he’s a fairly competent actor who might be great given the right material.
The real star of this film is the director, Wan. Saw contains a lot of original direction as far as the camerawork and style goes, and Wan has a promising future in the action and thriller genres. Saw is worth seeing for fans of the genre, and for anybody who likes a solid mystery thriller.
Shawn Wines can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.