It’s now been 14 straight years of me suggesting this game for family fun night, and I still get shut down every. single. time.
Cast of Characters:
Dr. Lawrence Gordon – Cary Elwes
Det. David Tapp – Danny Glover
Alison Gordon – Monica Potter
Zep Hindle – Michael Emerson
Det. Steven Sing – Ken Leung
John Kramer – Tobin Bell
Amanda Young – Shawnee Smith
Adam Stanheight – Leigh Whannell
Director – James Wan
Screenplay – Leigh Whannell
Producer – Gregg Hoffman, Oren Koules & Mark Burg
Rated R for strong grisly violence and language
One night, Adam Stanheight (Leigh Whannell) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) both awaken, chained up to pipes inside an old, dilapidated bathroom. Separating the two of them is a bloodied corpse holding a revolver. The two have no recollection as to how they got there, nor do they know the party responsible for their current predicament. However, the recorded tapes they soon find in their pockets explains it all to them. They have been chosen as pawns in a deadly game perpetuated by a notorious serial killer. If either wish to survive, they will have no other choice but to be tested physically, emotionally and psychologically in ways they never imagined.
Before The Conjuring and Insidious franchises, before Furious 7, before his upcoming adaptation of DC’s Aquaman, and before seven absolutely shitty sequels (one of which was bafflingly given the 3D treatment), filmmaker James Wan was an unknown who shared a little idea with actor/writer Leigh Whannell. Little did everyone know that idea would spawn a near-billion dollar franchise and a whole new sub-genre for horror – torture porn, aka “gorno” (gore + porno). The blame for the subsequent onslaught of torture flicks (and I can’t stress blame enough as torture porn films have provided nothing substantial to the horror genre), can’t be placed on Saw or Wan and Whannell. As violent as this film is, and make no mistake, it certainly is violent, it’s still considerably less violent than the following gorno films. Also, unlike the sequels, which eventually did place more emphasis on torture, Wan always envisioned Saw as a murder mystery thriller a la Seven, and Whannell has also added his indifference to the torture porn craze.
While originally meant to be a feature, Saw was first shot as a 7-minute short to draw funding interest from studios (in the short, Whannell plays the reverse bear trap victim that eventually would end up being played by Shawnee Smith). The initial concept came right after Wan finished film school, and both he and Whannell wanted to write and fund their own project. Inspired by both The Blair Witch Project and Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, the two sought to shoot something that was financially feasible for them and the best way to go about that was conceiving an idea centered on two actors in one room. Wan soon came up with the whodunit setup to the story revolving around two men chained on opposite sides of the bathroom. It wasn’t until Whannell had an appointment with a neurologist for migraines he was convinced were a brain tumor that he drew inspiration for the creation of the two men’s captor – The Jigsaw Killer.
I guess you just never know when inspiration will hit you. Hell, believe it or not, I came up with a script concept while on the toilet, so…
Saw requires viewers to buy into its outlandish premise completely if they’re to get any sort of twisted enjoyment out of it (reportedly, Wan and Whannell based their villain on an actual serial killer that set up games for their victims so maybe it’s not as outlandish as it appears). To be sure, you’ll either love it or leave it, but Wan and Whannell embrace its twisted absurdity with utmost confidence. And at a time when we were just starting to get a barrage of crap-tastic, bastardized remakes of horror classics, beginning with the Michael Bay produced Texas Chainsaw Massacre a year earlier in 2003, it should be a credit to Wan and Whannell that they were giving us something original, full-tilt disturbed or not.
Wan’s best asset in his filmmaking arsenal is his presentation. He knows how to make a picture look damn good, and his craft has gotten better over time, as evident in his recent Conjuring flicks, his two best films. Even his misfires like Death Sentence and Dead Silence still looked great. Borrowing some stylistic pointers from David Fincher’s Seven and a little bit from classic Dario Argento, Wan creates a grim setting that hinges on stark, murky lighting, disorienting sequences and dirty cinematography (David A. Armstrong’s dingy dungeon-like camerawork sets the tone immediately from the first frame) to ratchet up the psychological tension.
Whannell’s script stumbles with a few missteps (Danny Glover’s Det. Tapp, for example, isn’t that well fleshed-out for being the driven detective who’s supposed to save the day), but he still scores a couple demented twists and turns, and as I previously said, he does give us something that was fresh at the time (and then lazily rehashed another seven times). Despite being fourteen years since its release, I won’t spoil the surprises for those who may not have seen it.
The script’s strongest aspect, and its freshest, is its presenting us with a slasher villain who finally has a motive for his actions. Leatherface, Michael Myers and Freddy Krueger are deservedly on the Mount Rushmore of slasher villains, but they don’t exactly have motives for what they do (one could argue Krueger’s downfall as a motive, but he’s more a manifestation of the parents’ sins against him coming back to haunt their children). Jigsaw doesn’t necessarily kill his own victims; he pits them against each other and pushes them psychologically as to how far they’d be willing to go or what they’d be willing to do to the other in order to survive, and it’s his own circumstances that have pushed him to become the demented philosopher that he becomes. For most of the film, we never see Jigsaw, but even when he isn’t there, his presence is felt.
While this isn’t what I’d call an actor’s showcase, the cast is uniformly solid, save a few stiff moments from Whannell, who overall isn’t bad, but his performance is a mixed bag. Danny Glover isn’t exactly channeling Roger Murtaugh here, but he turns in a serviceable effort, as does Monica Potter in the obligatory role of Dr. Gordon’s longsuffering wife. As Dr. Gordon, Cary Elwes gives one of the film’s better performances, selling Gordon’s plunge into desperation and madness with great earnest. Lost’s Michael Emerson is effectively creepy as an orderly at Gordon’s hospital, which is no surprise as Emerson can easily play the twiggy creep type in his sleep.
Tobin Bell has been acting since the beginning of the ’80s and has appeared in everything from Paul Newman’s The Verdict, Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie and Gene Hackman’s Mississippi Burning, yet there’s no question it’ll be Jigsaw that’ll go down as the role he’s remembered for the most, and for good reason (the sequels may be utter crap, but Bell has always been the sole redeeming value in each of them). I mentioned Jigsaw’s presence being felt even when he isn’t seen, and that’s all on Bell. Whannell’s story concept may be ingenious, but the dialogue, while serving its purpose, doesn’t exactly pop off the page. No one’s gonna be mistaking the screenwriting credit for Joel and Ethan Coen. However, Bell takes the occasionally dopey tape-recorded one-liner and delivers it with such gravelly gravitas that dopey turns to downright chilling.
It’s no surprise that some viewers will find Saw either too grotesque or too far-fetched a concept, and though it’s no fault of this film’s own, the torture porn craze that soon followed has been an unfortunate blight on cinema. That said, thanks to some suitably chilling atmosphere from director James Wan, a few clever surprises from writer Leigh Whannell and some standout performances from Cary Elwes, Michael Emerson and Tobin Bell, Saw rises above mindless gratuity and makes for a disturbingly entertaining time.
Stash Tier: Silver Stash