Saturday, March 19, 2011

SAW (2004) - REVIEW

The year 2004 was a good year for movies. We had "Finding Neverland", "Ray", "Million Dollar Baby", "The Aviator", "The Bourne Supremacy", "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", "Hotel Rwanda" and many, many others. Indeed, a good year for movies. But among the sleeper hits, there was also "Saw". Independently produced on a 1,2 million dollars budget by a first-time director, James Wan, this little horror feature, which was initally intended to be a straight-to-video release, went on to become an iconic franchise, which spawned six sequels in six years and brought splatter cinema back into the mainstream spotlight. It also overstayed its welcome, dragging the story out until it became as mangled as one of Jigsaw's victims. We'll get there, but first, let's talk about "Saw".

All seven movies in this franchise end with a big twist, so I will just stick to talking about the current movie, without going into details about the story's evolution in the sequels. I will treat the next entries the same way. I'll try not to spoil anything. Besides, I'm reviewing the quality and entertainment value of these movies, not the Jigsaw mythology.

"No talking during the movie."
The movie opens with two men, Adam (Leigh Whannell) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), chained by their ankles to pipes on opposite sides of a decrepit-looking bathroom. Between them, in a pool of blood, lies a corpse holding a gun and a mini-cassette recorder. Each of them holds a tape in their pocket and those tapes hold the rules of a sick game which they will have to play out in order to survive. Dr. Gordon has to kill Adam within a time limit, or else his wife and daughter will be killed. They also have two saws in the room. They could opt out of the game, but freedom can only be obtained by sawing off their own feet. The author of this game is Jigsaw, a serial killer who entraps his victims then has them carry out sadistic feats of self-mutilation to prove themselves worthy and earn a second chance in life. It's like a version of "127 Hours", if Aaron Rolston would have been told from the get-go that he had to chop-off his hand in order to live. Supposedly this test of will and morality should make the victims more aware of how precious their lives are, but as you'll see throughout the series, not many survive, which kind of defies the whole purpose. If I were Jigsaw and after a while I would take notice that none of my test subjects actually survive, let alone learn to appreciate life, I would just give up and take up knitting, or something.

"If I could just reach that phone..."
The story also follows the Jigsaw investigation spearheaded by detective Tapp (Danny Glover), who is quite obsessed with apprehending the sadistic criminal. So obsessed in fact, that he commits the ultimate cliche of going in without backup, thus getting his partener killed. But, nevermind the cliches. Part I of this crazy maze of psycho sadistic thrills is the only one of the seven movies that actually shows some thought-process on behalf of the filmmakers. You can feel there are ideas at work here and it elevates the movie past the level of derivative exploitation flick. It sure doesn't help that the dialogue is stale and the acting is stiff, but there is palpable tension in the narrative and the twists in the story are really clever. There are, however, some pacing issues that become even more obvious with repeat viewings. The twists are the driving force of this movie, along with a twisted vision filled with gory delights for fans of the genre. Seeing it more than once doesn't really work like it does for a movie like "Inception". You won't discover things you overlooked the first time around, but you will become increasingly aware of the existence of plot holes and cliches. The ending is indeed a knockout and deserves mention in the pantheon of great twist endings. None of the next franchise entries ever equalled it, but one or two did come close.

You're probably wondering how gnarly the violence is, considering the gruesome reputation of the "Saw" franchise. Surprisingly, given how extreme the rest of the series is, the first two movies are very bloody, but not quite as over-the-top. The small budget meant that some special effects had to be masked by the editing, which means no gory sequence is really in the frame long enough for the viewer to start learning anatomy (unlike in the sequels). There's really just a lot of suggestive material rather than explicit. Still, if you're squeamish, this is the wrong movie for you.

Director James Wan, editor Kevin Greutert, cinematographer David A. Armstrong, composer Charlie Clouser have all contributed something unique to the movie, elements that have become easily recongisible as the franchise's trademarks. Sure, at some point it became overkill (pun intended), but to their credit, they proved you don't need a big budget as long as you have a great idea and they raised the bar just slightly higher for the genre. Then studio greed pushed it back where it used to be.


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