Review: Saw

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #805

Number of Views: Two
Release Date: January 19, 2004 (Sundance)
Sub-Genre: Psychological Thriller
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $1,200,000
Box Office: $103,900,000
Running Time: 103 minutes
Director: James Wan
Producers: Gregg Hoffman, Mark Burg, Oren Koules
Screenplay: Leigh Whannell
Based on Saw by James Wan, Leigh Whannell
Special Effects: Thomas L. Bellissimo
Visual Effects: Marlo Pabon
Cinematography: David A. Armstrong
Score: Charlie Clouser
Editing: Kevin Greutert
Studios: Evolution Entertainment, Twisted Pictures
Distributor: Lionsgate Films
Stars: Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannell, Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Michael Emerson, Ken Leung, Tobin Bell, Makenzie Vega, Shawnee Smith, Dina Meyer, Alexandra Bokyun Chun, Mike Butters, Paul Gutrecht, Ned Bellamy, Oren Koules

Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫

[1] The Cardigans “My Favorite Game”
[2] Steelers Wheel “Stuck In The Middle With You”
[3] Charlie Clouser “Hello Zepp”

I feel bad for Jigsaw, really I do. You see, I soon tired of 1000-piece puzzles and, by the same token, my interest in the fan-friendly franchise from James Wan & Leigh Whannell began to fade by the time the second of six sequels came and passed (discounting The Spierig Brothers’ upcoming Saw: Legacy that is). I fear this may have something with the “torture porn” label that stuck around about the time that the original flexed its muscles. It wasn’t all about Saw though as Eli Roth’s Hostel had a hand in popularizing this fleetingly fresh movement. However, while I found both Roth’s films to be primarily enjoyable, there was something grimy about Wan’s cleverly conceived potboiler that made it harder for this particular viewer to warm to.

To be fair, the series has supplied on counts too numerous to tally with regards to its ringleader’s terrible traps and I frequently find myself harking back to them. It’s the legwork we’re required to put in to get there that steals the romance as the formula it follows is so rigid and unyielding that it ironically ensnares itself. However, what has truly prevented me from this seven-string undertaking for so long is the fact that, regardless of my personal grievances, I know darn well that every last one of them have merits at their mercy. Now I’m all for donning that deep red lipstick and sucking Fat Albert until my pouches fill if a film warrants such a party favor; but less inclined to suck in my cheeks when required to drudge through over ten man hours of laborious detective work before feeling equipped to elaborate.

There comes a time in one’s life when sucking it up for the team is the only option and, with over 700 vial-shaped appraisals wedged under my utility belt, I found myself woefully short of reasons to dally a solitary countdown longer. Bring it Jigsaw you three-wheeling fuck, I’ll play your dastardly game, if only to escape from the reverse bear trap primed to ping at any given moment should I decline your polite request. Those wheels could do with some greasing if you ask me and I promise to be just and fair in my analysis. You see, for a franchise to secure almost $900 million in worldwide box-office revenue, not to mention propel both its creators into the major leagues, it has ho have its share of game. Saw is an excellent slow-burn thriller in its own right and its origins are far humbler than you may think.

Shortly after graduating from film school, Australians Wan and Whannell decided to put all they’d learned to good use by writing and funding their own movie. Taking their cues from Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez’s The Blair Witch Project and Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, they figured out the most cost-effective manner in which to tell their story and plumped for a simple one room set-up, hitting the ground running with a seven-minute short to entice potential investors.

Interestingly the character of John Kramer (Tobin Bell) didn’t figure into their plans until some time after conception, when Whannell suddenly began suffering from intense migraines. Fearing the worst that he was hosting a malignant tumor, he underwent an MRI scan and it came to him like a bolt from the blue. The concept of a killer for whom the clock was ticking relentlessly felt like a winner, especially given that he would extend the same hospitality to his victims.

His wasn’t mere masochism for the sheer sake of spite and, in some sick twisted way, The Jigsaw Killer was something of a philanthropist. Working with the motto “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, those who survive his traps would ultimately be all the better because of it. Granted, the odds of acing these cunningly devised brain teasers weren’t necessarily favorable, but at least he placed each lab rat’s fate in their own hands. Given that he was afflicted with the inoperable frontal lobe tumor/colon cancer combo, this former civil engineer was far too frail to do his own foul bidding so he used his many years of industry experience to concoct all manner of fiendish obstacle courses and rigged each double dare to his stopwatch.

Of course, like any devious criminal mastermind, Jigsaw started small and worked his way up from there. His first patsies are photographer Adam Faulkner (Whannell) and oncologist Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), two perfect strangers who find themselves in the same thankless predicament without a solitary inkling what has earned them the dubious honor. Waking up shackled to pipes in the kind of bathroom that Greystoke would turn up his snout at, they are separated by a dead body curiously clutching a revolver and microcassette recorder.

Both men have a tape on their personage, with conflicting instructions on each, and whatever sick bastard is responsible for detaining them against their will appears to be urging Adam and Lawrence to throw down against one another. Just to spice things up further, two hacksaws have kindly been stashed within a toilet tank and the whole head-to-head will be observed by a camera hidden behind the mirror.

While our two new friends are getting acquainted, world-weary cop Detective Tapp (Danny Glover) is attempting to solve the mystery with his partner Detective Sing (Ken Leung) and coming up with precious few answers. It’s great to see Glover back on the force again although I distinctly recall him announcing himself “too old for this shit” some time ago and he spends most of his screen time chasing his tail here.

His only witness is heroin addict Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith) whose greater relevance in the story will become clear in subsequent sequels. There a number of different storylines running concurrently and we also flash back to our two captive’s pre-abduction activities to learn more about why they’re implicated in all this. All the while, the timer is counting down and Whannell and Wan are preparing to pull the rug out from under all of our feet.

It’s easy to see that Saw was closely modeled on David Fincher’s Se7en. From David A. Armstrong’s grungy cinematography, which incorporates fluorescent greens and tawdry reds to give the film its own unique look, to the twisting turning plot riddled with red herrings, that gradually unfurls before us and the killer’s meticulous attention to the tiniest of details, its influences are clear for all to see.

That said, Wan’s film is far more than simple carbon copy and acts as a sturdy template for all future entries to draw from. First time’s a charm and it wouldn’t be until two or three sequels in that the vague feeling of over-familiarity would sink in. Here it’s as fresh as a daisy, albeit one coated in arsenic and rigged to a strategically placed C4 detonator.

Much has been said of the performances of both our leads, with Elwes singled out as hamming it up and Whannell taken to task for his lack of previous acting chops. I actually find the criticism a little unnecessary as both convey their characters’ plights adequately and neither are exactly the easiest of roles to nail. Glover is fine too, although not given a great deal to do but it is Bell as the nefarious Jigsaw whose participation is most telling and let’s just say not a great deal is demanded of him here.

Saw is a solid psychological thriller that grabs our attention early doors and refuses to relinquish its grip until the countdown reaches zero. Whether or not Lionsgate Films were justified in franchising this beast is open to debate, although the stats don’t lie and seldom has a movie emerged at quite such an ideal time to milk it concept for all it is worth.

Like Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday The 13th over twenty years prior, it capitalizes on the audience’s curiosity of how the next atrocity will play out, but adopts a far greater level of restraint than subsequent entries with regards to the all-important traps that helped make its name. While its influence is not open to debate however, the classic status it has gone on to achieve is. When all is said and done, it’s a taut little potboiler with much to commend that proves, once and for all, that timing really is everything.

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Grue Factor: 3/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: We all know how far the boat was pushed out as the series wore on but Wan’s original tests the water with regards to on-screen brutality. As much is implied as shown, although there’s still more than enough grisliness to sink your teeth into and a fair old body count amassed en route to our final eye-watering conundrum.

Read Hostel Appraisal
Read Hostel Part II Appraisal
Read The Collector Appraisal
Read The Collection Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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