4 November 2009

Retro Review: Saw (2004)


2004, 103mins, R
Director: James Wan
Writer (s): James Wan, Leigh Whannell
Cast includes: Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannell, Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Dina Meyer
Release Dates: 29th October 2004

Having descended into the realms of stretched franchising that sucked up Jason and Freddy beforehand; it’s easy to forget that the first “Saw” film is now only five years olds. Directed by then newcomer James Wan the movie was an inexplicable hit and has to this date spawned five further sequels, a rash of motion pictures that I have largely to this day stayed away from. As far as debut efforts go “Saw” isn’t bad and certainly boasts several instances of well executed tension and prolonged viscera but certainly doesn’t deserve admittance into the club reserved for the horror genres finest efforts. I can see why the movie drew crowds in during late 2004 but ultimately it’s stunningly prolonged appeal is a little harder to fathom.

The movie opens in a dingy bathroom that is currently being occupied by two men, both chained there against their will without a clue as to why. The first is Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) the second Adam (Leigh Whannell) neither able to recall the moments before they awoke in the dungeon like restroom, and offered only a few clues as to why. It transpires that they are the latest victims of the Jigsaw killer; a sadistic murderer who plays out grisly games with his targets, but in a unique twist always provides them with an extreme way to evade death. In this instance Dr. Gordon has to kill Adam before the clock strikes Six or he will be left to rot, and as a consequence his wife and daughter will become mere statistics in the killer’s unstoppable rampage.

“Saw” is by turns exceedingly clever and frustratingly dumb, though in fairness this opening chapter doesn’t revel quite so feverishly in the obscene bloodshed as its immediate brethren. I take issue with several of the plot contortions on display and a few of the performances are definitely less than stellar, yet somehow the thing still manages to operate successfully on a base level. As a thriller “Saw” does admittedly hold your attention from start to finish and packs several punchy scenes, which in retrospect are enough to make it a watchable enough example of recent horror cinema.

The performances veer between ropey and adequate, the two central figures provided by Elwes and Whannell serving up a chief example of this. On one hand Whannell is believable and perfectly solid; he creates a decent character and attacks his part with enough realism and grit to make it engaging. On the other hand Elwes goes too far, he’s never dull but taking him seriously is an unfortunate chore for most of the picture. There is also an inconsistency in the character, at points he’s logical and tolerable on others he’s a whimpering and hammy mess. Outside of those two the film is populated by non entities and stereotypes, Danny Glover is achingly familiar as a cop on the killer’s tail whilst Monica Potter is given nothing to do as Gordon’s put upon wife.

The screenplay is fond of twisting the viewer’s perception as to where the property is headed, and whilst this is satisfying to a degree, by the end the feature ends up taking the proverbial piss. The big reveal at the conclusion is lazy and requires a massive suspension of disbelief, on watching it seems unlikely but when given further reflection it’ simply dumbfounding and stupid. That said large chunks of “Saw” also work, against all odds the torture sequences manage to creep the viewer out and many of the reveals provided in the middle section do make for fascinating moral dilemmas. The first and second acts of “Saw” are far more impressive than its hasty and cheap final segment, during these parts Wan is positively hooked on keeping the audience guessing rather than foaming at the camera lens over tepid chase sequences and gimmicky self mutilation.

From a stylistic standpoint some of “Saw” is over directed but given its reported $1.2 million budget the feature looks surprisingly sharp. The bathroom setting has a creepy and unsettling aesthetic whilst other environments manage to unearth the same gritty and malevolent vibes. “Saw” is a film that unfolds in an evil world, it’s pretty humourless and everyone is struggling with dark thoughts and feelings. I don’t see “Saw” as any sort of classic, indeed it treads dangerously close to mediocrity on occasion, yet undeniably it is a somewhat efficient thriller. Worthy of five sequels I think not, but overall a flawed yet interesting look at grunge cinema in the 21st century.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009


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