Directed by James Wan. Starring Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannell, Danny Glover, Ken Keung, Dina Meyer, Monica Potter, Makenzie Vega. (2004, R, 100 min.)
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 29, 2004
James Wan’s directorial debut arrives with so much hype surrounding it that nothing in the film could ever be as shocking as the realization of just how undeserved that buzz actually is. Horror aficionados have been hearing for so long now about how distressing, disturbing, and downright deviant Saw was going to be that the level of anticipation was well-nigh on a par with any George Lucas project. Advance word had it that Wan’s film out-sawed Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in terms of sheer visceral suspense, not to mention the extremely high gore quotient (one character has to dig through the entrails of a still-breathing victim to save her own life, which, you have to admit, is no picnic). So it comes as the worst sort of disappointment to discover that not only is this serial-killer tale far from original (for starters, it borrows bits from David Fincher’s Seven and any number of Danny Glover’s trademark cop films), but it also contains some of the most abysmal acting – courtesy of the Dread Pirate Roberts himself, Cary Elwes – this side of a Herschell Gordon Lewis gag fest. It’s a dirty shame, really, because Wan and screenwriter/co-star Whannell are working with some nifty riffs on the very tired serial-killer genre. Thing is, they don’t ever quite jell, and so the audience is left wondering what the hell they just saw (no pun intended). At the screening I attended, post-show chat was evenly divided between the "It’s got to be a parody, right?" camp and shocked silence broken only by the grinding of molars as people struggled to come to grips with the fact that the film, decidedly ambitious though it may well be, is hardly the opening salvo on a new, harder, more ghastly stream of horror filmmaking. The story has two men, medical doctor Lawrence (Elwes) and mysterious Adam (Whannell) waking up together in a filthy storage room of the sort favored by, one presumes, Ed Gein. They’re shackled to the walls, and to make matters worse, there’s a dead man with a very large hole in his head lying between them. As it turns out, both men have been shanghaied by the "Jigsaw Killer," a renegade psychopath who strives to teach life lessons via some very nasty, very gory techniques. Adam and Lawrence must try to find a way out of their seemingly inescapable cell – thankfully, Mr. Jigsaw has provided some clues, none of which are very reassuring – before the good doctor’s kidnapped wife and little girl (Potter and Vega) meet their own undeserved ends. Saw works best when it subverts the conventions of the genre, but at the same time it plays right into those selfsame clichés; Danny Glover’s detective on a mission is at once woefully underwritten and peculiarly over-the-top. Elwes’ performance in the last reel of the film is so surreally awful (think Princess Buttercup’s darling Wesley caught in the midst of a three-week Method bender overseen by William Shatner) that it ends up ruining any semblance of credibility the film managed in its first 90-odd minutes. Saw has its moments, and most of them are brutal in the extreme, but ultimately it’s one tremendous misfire that will either leave you laughing or, possibly, gagging. Not what I’d call a winning combination.