Saw (2004)

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“Two strangers, who awaken in a room with no recollection of how they got there, soon discover they’re pawns in a deadly game perpetrated by a notorious serial killer.” — IMDb

Amazingly enough, I hadn’t actually seen Saw until this viewing — somehow I managed to make it a whole 17 years after its release before finally giving in. I think a lot of the “torture porn” stereotype kept me away, which is a shame because it doesn’t really fit into that category (though I’ve heard some of the sequels devolve into less plot, more gore for its own sake). I was surprised to learn that even much of Saw‘s grittiness — a common characteristic of early 2000s horror, really, but something I knew about Saw before ever watching — was due to a lack of budget during production rather than an intentional style.

It was director James Wan’s feature film debut, which is especially impressive considering how much of a franchise it is now (Jigsaw, the eighth installment in the series, was just released last month) and how much the character of Jigsaw has become such a well-known face in the world of horror (his puppet representation, at least). Wan and co-writer Leigh Whannell (who also stars in the film as Adam, one of the two men locked in the bathroom) had trouble getting support for the film in their home country of Australia, so they followed urgings to try in Los Angeles and made up a 9-minute low budget short to attract producers. It worked — it was picked up by Evolution Entertainment and after its 2004 release became one of the most profitable horror films since 1996’s Scream.

The film centers around Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and Adam (Leigh Whannell), two men who wake up chained by their ankles in a filthy, dilapidated bathroom, separated by a dead man laying in a pool of his own blood and gripping a microcassette recorder. They have to piece together clues in the room as well as their own slowly returning memories to figure out just who has them locked up and why…

** SPOILERS! **

I honestly did NOT expect to enjoy this movie. It was a pretty effective lesson in not judging a book (or a movie) by its cover (or its hype, for that matter). I was surprised, overall, by how smart it was. Again, I had expected a sort of schlock film, rife with blood and guts and sadism but no real substance, but I was happily surprised by the developing complexities of the plot.

It is dirty and gritty and poorly acted, for sure, but there’s a solid enough plot line behind it all that I was able to pardon it for the most part. Reading about Wan and Whannell’s limited budget — which didn’t allow them nearly as many takes with the actors as they had hoped for — helped. Wan had wanted to go for a more Hitchcockian vibe but he was aware of how much his limitations would prevent that, which is a shame — it’s interesting to think about how much more intense this movie could have been with the proper time and money put into it.

I love Cary Elwes, I really do — I mean, come on — but the dude is not the greatest at American accents. He starts off barely hiding his British accent and by the end his accent is plain unrecognizable. It’s funny in a way, really, but it does make me wonder why actors are even told to hide their accents to begin with.

I probably knew the most about Jigsaw before I watched this movie — just the general idea of him pitting people against each other — but I didn’t quite realize the extent of his “murders”. The man who slit his wrists being put in a room full of razor wire with a narrow tunnel to crawl through to show how much he really wanted to live (with the irony being that he would have to cut himself again to really prove it), or the man who was “sick” all the time having ingested a slow-acting poison and needing to navigate walls covered in numbers to find the combination to the safe that contained his antidote (all the while being covered in a flammable substance while his only source of light was a candle), or the drug addicted woman needing to cut open the stomach of an alive but drugged up man to get the key to unlock her “reverse bear trap” (oooof). The scenarios were all meticulously tailored to each person’s sins, in a way — specifically catered to how that person took their life for granted in the eyes of Jigsaw.

I thought Jigsaw’s motivation, while disturbed as hell, was an interesting aspect to the movie, especially when paired with the fact that he doesn’t actually kill anyone himself. I can only imagine how maddening it would be to have a terminal disease and see people around you that you believe are taking for granted the very life being ripped from you. I also thought the reverse bear trap scene was such a crucial one because it showed that he is indeed fair in his games — she successfully fished the key out of the man’s stomach and Jigsaw let her go, hoping she was more grateful for her life now.

I knew as soon as I saw the orderly, Zep (Michael Emerson), being patronized by Dr. Gordon that he would play a more major role later on, though it wasn’t what I thought at all (I initially thought he would end up being the killer but had doubts when I saw how sloppy he was later on).

The gore was surprisingly sparse but when it happened, it was intense, specifically Dr. Gordon sawing his own damn foot off in a moment of desperation to reach his wife and daughter. One of those rare moments where I sat, mouth agape, and then started yelling “no no no NO NO!” at the TV.

But the ENDING is really where it’s at. I had NO clue where it was going, and somewhat assumed it would end with some kind of bloody battle or hokey cliffhanger… but DAMN, it surprised me. It was perfect, really — enough so that I won’t spoil it for the 5 or 6 of you out there who haven’t seen it yet.

Ultimately, I am really looking forward to watching at least some of the sequels. If they are similar to this one I think they will be super fun (and I really don’t mind the gore so bring it on).

Rating: 6.5/10 | Director: James Wan | Writer: James Wan, Leigh Whannell | Music: Charlie Clouser | Cinematography: David A. Armstrong | Starring: Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannell, Danny Glover, Ken Leung, Michael Emerson, Makenzie Vega, Monica Potter, Tobin Bell

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