Friday, October 15, 2004
* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)
Saw is what you might call a quality thriller. It backs up its creepy visuals and free-flowing blood with a story straight from the darker parts of the human heart, features a solid cast that mixes its unknowns and second-tier movie stars with skill, and a first-time director who appears to know a thing or two about the building and release of tension.
I'm not a big fan of the cat-and-mouse serial killer, as a rule. I don't think most people are predictable enough, especially in terms of how they'll react to a life-or-death situation, for a puppet-master's elaborate plans to work. Saw mostly avoids that by setting up the Jigsaw Killer's constructs as tests; you get the opportunity to live by killing another.
This time, it's Laurence (Cary Elwes) and Adam (co-writer Leigh Whannell) facing a concundrum. Chained to fixtures at the opposite ends of a filthy restroom, they will have to somehow work together to escape, but if Laurence doesn't kill Adam, his wife and daughter will be killed. Laurence knows it's for real, because he was a suspect in a previous murder, where he met Detectives Tagg (Danny Glover) and Sing (Ken Leung), the men investigating the case.
Whannell and co-writer/director James Wan mostly play fair with the audience, even if they don't give us a whole lot of suspects for Jigsaw's identity. Even information seems to be deliberately held back to keep people in the dark, it tends to be believable. The explanation of the killer's motives seems plausible while still being thoroughly insane and disturbing. They also manage the trick of showing the carfeully planned murders in a way that "that's really sick" overwhelms "that's really clever".
The pacing is also very strong. Not just in terms of "I didn't look at the clock once", but when the time comes for an action scene, the audience is primed, ready to see something erupt. Then, when the action scenes come, they'll have a bit of violence that is shocking and gruesome enough to keep the scene from being a total tension relief. The closest thing I'd have to a complaint is that there is a rapid-cut "here's how it all fits together" montage at one point. It's not as patronizing as some (I'm pretty sure M. Night Shyamalan's next movie will have charts and use of a telestrator during this sequence), but I'm not sure how much of it the audience needs.
The blood-and-guts factor is reasonably high in this movie, though it gives the impression of being nastier than it actually is via disturbing design work. The R rating is well-earned, and I'm not sure how much the gore removed from the original NC-17 cut would have added. It's a near-certainty that this cut will eventually arrive on DVD, so I suppose those who like gore qua gore may want to wait for that. This cut certainly doesn't feel like it's got anything important left out, although I think I can identify some of the points where cuts were made.
The cast is strong; I was especially impressed by Danny Glover, who gives good "obsessed detective" here. Whannell is a little raw, but serviceable. Monica Potter does fine as Laurence's wife. Cary Elwes is a little more of a mixed bag; his character is supposed to be somewhat overly calm and unexcitable, and he does that well, but when the time comes for him to show some emotion, he occasionally can see campiness from where he's standing. He never actually crosses the line, but his is the least steady performance of a very professional film.
Despite me not being into the genre and the gore and having a "hey, wait a minute" moment near the end, I found Saw to be a pretty damn superior thriller. I can only imagine how it is to people who generally DO find this to be their cup of tea.