Saw (2004)

Saw first published by Movie Gazette, October 24, 2004

Adam (co-writer Leigh Whannell) wakes up to find his leg shackled to a pipe in a large, filthy bathroom, with the surgeon Dr Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) chained to the opposite wall far out of reach. The presence in the room’s centre of a bloody corpse clutching a gun and a dictaphone leaves them in no doubt that their situation is deadly serious. Together they listen to the pre-taped messages left for them: Adam’s tape merely taunts him with a challenge to survive, while Gordon’s instructs him find a way of killing Adam by 6 o’clock or else his own wife and daughter will be killed and he will be left there to rot. Adam finds two surgical saws in the toilet’s cistern, not strong enough to hack through their chains, but perfect for slicing flesh and bone – reminding Gordon of the recent case of the so-called ‘jigsaw’ killer, a sadistic game-player who “never killed anyone, he finds ways for them to kill themselves”. It is a case with which Gordon is all too familiar, given that he was himself the prime suspect in the investigation conducted by detectives Tapp (Danny Glover) and Sing (Ken Leung). Despite their mutual distrust, Adam and Gordon must share their knowledge and pool their resources if they are to have any chance of emerging alive (let alone in one piece).

This is merely the opening sequence of James Wan’s breathless debut Saw, which immediately plunges its viewers, along with Adam and Gordon, into a dark hellhole of disorientation and panic, and then, as the clock ticks inexorably towards its deadline, allows the various clues scattered around the room, as well as the pair’s memories of their own lives and of the unsolved murder case, to fall into place like so many pieces from a jigsaw puzzle, gradually revealing a picture that is complex, full of unexpected twists, and utterly harrowing. The identity of the sick manipulator controlling the proceedings always (until the final shock revelation) seems just beyond reach, but the motives behind all these horrific games (‘players’ are forced to maim themselves and/or kill others in a bid to survive) are made clear from the start: the victims are being taught a painful, often fatal, lesson in the value of life, so that the film’s grisly set-pieces all have an oddly ethical resonance which elevates them far above your average slasher. Saw is also, as its punning title suggests, a film concerned not just with gory slice-and-dice, but with the mechanics of viewing itself. Not only does it feature a range of characters who, like filmgoers, secretly keep watch on others, but its Rubik’s-like structure and elliptical use of flashbacks ensure that you can never quite trust what you think you just saw.

Saw combines the claustrophobic puzzle-solving of Vincenzo Natali’s Cube (1997) with the dark morality of David Fincher’s Se7en (1995), but perhaps the greatest influence on its surreal grand guignol and its masked killer is Italy’s maestro of giallo, Dario Argento. Now, however, that Argento is wasting his talents on substandard fare like The Card Player (2004), director/co-writer James Wan should be welcomed as the new kid on the butcher’s block – for this fast-paced, intricately plotted and intelligently macabre psycho-thriller does not just defeat its genre rivals, but leaves them for dead, alone in the dark, screaming for mercy.

It’s Got: A series of inventively horrible deaths involving impossible moral dilemmas, a principal setting that drips with claustrophobia and entrapment, a manipulative (and patient) killer with a bizarrely didactic purpose, and an affirmation of lifes value that is unconventionally (but satisfyingly) bleak.

Strap: James Wan’s twistily clever, perversely die-dactic psychothriller affirms life’s value even as it sends all hope down the drain.

© Anton Bitel