A horror movie that gave rise to a series of increasingly brutal follow ups, Saw was the benchmark of pushing the envelope yet retaining a story. Shot on a small budget and completed on a quick schedule, director James Wan and writer/ actor Leigh Whannell created a film that was grisly yet very well executed and with more psychological underpinnings than what followed.
Two strangers, prominent surgeon Dr. Lawrence Gordon(Cary Elwes) and photographer Adam(Leigh Whannell) wake up in an underground bathroom. They are both chained to pipes and between them is a bloodied corpse holding a cassette player and a revolver. Both men seem to have no recollection of how they arrived in this dank, disused place. Soon discovering that the room is filled with clues and objects that may be useful, the two men use the cassette player to listen to the messages left. A gargled voice explains that Lawrence’s wife Allison(Monica Potter)and daughter Diana have been kidnapped and will be killed if Lawrence doesn’t kill Adam by a certain time. Adam is urged to escape, though it seems the only way to do that is to saw off his foot and crawl to hopeful safety. Soon memories start coming back to Lawrence who realises something awful about their predicament. Him and Adam are part of an elaborate and disturbing game set up by The Jigsaw Killer(Tobin Bell). He is a man who puts people who don’t appreciate life in horrifying situations involving torture to see how much they want to survive. As time keeps ticking by, we also witness a former detective named David Tapp(Danny Glover) who had previously runs in with Jigsaw, becoming dangerously obsessed with finding him. Both scenarios promise much in the way of horror and brutality for everyone involved with a killer twist.
Debuting director James Wan made a splash with Saw and its clear to see why. Wan possesses a keen sense of what unnerves the audience and a hold over a gloomy sense of style. Setting the film largely in one location was a great idea that paid off, with the flashbacks setting the scene even further for us in a gradual fashion. The cold, washed out colour pallet adds to the grimness of Saw; bathing events in an uneasy hue that makes your eyes almost readjust to the bleakness. Certain comparisons can be drawn to Seven, and that’s quite a movie to take influence from. Saw however does it well and has its own twisted agenda going for it, so it is far from a copycat of the masterful aforementioned movie. Though later films would up the gore to excruciating levels, Saw itself is a bit more tame. There is definite gore and much unpleasant imagery to behold( like one unfortunate victim of Jigsaw in a maze of barbed wire), but it’s often shown briefly or in ways that don’t display everything. Take for instance when we see a victim of Jigsaw with a reverse bear trap strapped to her head. Instructed by the madman to retrieve the key to release her from sudden death, she must brutally kill a sedated man and find the object in his stomach. It would have been easy to make it a full on bloodbath, but Wan chooses to speed up footage and only display various parts do that our imagination does the rest of the work and makes us picture the horror. It’s one of many scenes where you see bits of the gore but it’s largely left up to us to visualise what is happening in the story in that particular grisly.
Once the film opens up in narrative terms, it feels more expansive and puzzling with the history of characters explored after what seemed like such a straightforward premise. Granted the set up is simple but effective, but Wan and Whannell are clearly interested in playing with the formula as well as injecting some pertinent questions on the nature of morality and desperation. Saw isn’t without its flaws( sometimes the script shows that it’s from a novice and a few times things can move too quickly to focus), yet this shouldn’t detract from a creepy as well as horrifying film that knows how to get under your skin. It’s hard to forget the clown like puppet that acts as the terrifying mouthpiece for Jigsaw, uttering the now infamous line “ I want to play a game”. This moment and visual has become synonymous with the film and rightfully so as it’s chilling. One of the best elements in Saw is the score from Charlie Clouser. It has an industrial influence that hums away with an electronic pulse that underscores the mounting terror of the film.
Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell head the movie as the imprisoned men. Elwes is all trying to remain calm under pressure with a seemingly sensible and arrogantly strait-laced head before really cracking up, while Whannell in an early acting role is the more showy and in your face, never seen that still for long. Occasionally both actors go a little overboard( especially Whannell in a few stretches), but what still remains is good acting as we buy into the shared terror between them that can’t be denied. Sure no Oscars are coming their way for this, but they are acceptably good in their given parts and sell a lot of the horror we witness. They must be commended for holding our attention as the people who are basically on screen the most from start to finish.
Danny Glover is suitably intense as the obsessed and verging on full breakdown former detective who provides the other half of the story and an axe to grind with Jigsaw. Ken Leung provides more backstory to the case as Glover’s parter in investigation and the two work well off each other. Michael Emerson, with his large eyes and uneasy demeanour, has us on edge with his delivery of a man caught him the game but not in the way you might think. Monica Potter on the other hand is just required to be terrified and not much else, as her character doesn’t have much in the way of development. Props must be given to Shawnee Smith for her one scene that truly traumatises; the reverse bear trap one where most of her acting is through her eyes and they evoke such a feeling of desperation and visceral pain it’s astounding. Despite limited screen time and mainly just the use of his voice, Tobin Bell creates one of horror’s most memorable villains in Jigsaw. That voice will send unending shivers down your spine and it’s down to that and Bell’s embracing of the twisted philosophy of the character that you buy into it.
A creepy and nail biting horror that is both stomach churning and psychological, Saw is a definite recommendation for horror fans out there.