Saw is the kind of movie I would ordinarily label a burgeoning cult hit, but it’s not smart enough for that. Films that attain that status tend to be either high camp or smarter than your average bear. James Wan’s debut feature is monumentally stupid in an oblivious way, but it’s good fun anyhow, with a neat if mostly wasted gimmick and a few surprises that gave me a geeky thrill even as I scoffed at their idiocy. Saw will likely be hated by a few, liked by many, and loved by none.
Before I saw the film, someone described it to me as Se7en meets Cube. As the latter is one of my favorite films, anything “meets Cube” would undoubtedly get my attention. Rapt attention quickly turned to mild disappointment as Saw revealed itself to be little more than an overblown serial killer flick, albeit an energetic and affably grisly one. Surely, anyone hoping to see a movie that fully delivers on the chilling, potentially supernatural conceit of the first trailer (the one which asked the pointed question, “How fucked up is that?“) should be let down by the fairly pedestrian course Wan’s film winds up following.
Wan desperately wanted this to be a hip production. To facilitate this, he hired Nine Inch Nails producer Charlie Clouser to write a driving heavy metal soundtrack and spun the camera around a lot in fast-motion. This works rather well before the movie becomes ridiculous, at which point it becomes an emphatically poseur-ish effort to up the ante on other serial killer movies, most notably Se7en. It’s funny how the tricks we delightedly fall for while the movie has us in its grips are the same ones we resent when the story loses us.
And the story loses us at the very moment that we move, in flashback, from the dank underground room that holds Adam (co-writer Leigh Whanell) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) prisoner, chained to pipes with only a few mysterious implements to tide them over, including a tape recorder with instructions and a saw. I am a pushover for this kind of stuff — two people wake up in a claustrophobic setting, have no idea how they got there, and Big Brother is clearly watching from behind the scenes — and I hoped against hope that the film would proceed in this vein, that the writers would find a way for the plot to develop inside that room, and for the revelations to emerge within its confines.
But no: Saw promptly engages in a mind-blowingly arbitrary bit of flashback storytelling, with the characters remembering crucial details at the precise moment most convenient for the screenwriter. There’s a cop (Danny Glover) tracking a vicious serial killer who lectures his victims before finding creative ways to dispose of them. There’s Dr. Gordon’s wife (Monica Potter), who, of course, is threatened by presumably the same person who abducted Dr. Gordon. There’s the sole survivor of the killer’s brutality who, it must be said, has a genuinely chilling story to tell.
The way this plot unravels is so contrived and, ultimately, so stupid, that the story loses its mystique, and we very nearly lose interest. Eventually, the tone of the film reaches an utterly deranged level of hysteria, culminating in what might be the most hilarious car chase I have ever seen (no, seriously, it might alone be worth the price of admission). Cary Elwes gives what I suppose is an appropriately absurd performance, crying and screaming and generally earning his paycheck in every way he knows how.
The good news is that once we finally realize that all is lost w/r/t Saw being another Cube, we can, to a degree, get back into the film. And I’d be lying if I said that the final revelation, unveiled in a typically dramatic way, didn’t make me a little giddy, though of course it’s as retarded as everything that leads up to it. Saw is laughable, but it’s worth laughing at.