SAW (2004)
Director: James Wan

Many people take their lives for granted. They just go through the motions, never thinking twice about their mundane existences. They develop unhealthy addictions to drugs and alcohol, abuse their loved ones and ignore others, and go as far as committing suicide. Why? Simply because deep down, they're unhappy with life and are hollow and empty inside. Someone like that could be anyone from a strung-out junkie that is only happy when she's injecting different poisons into her veins, or a twentysomething slacker apathetically coasting through life on auto-pilot, or even an affluent doctor that is highly respected by his peers and colleagues. The darker parts of humanity became inspiration for writer/director James Wan and co-writer Leigh Whannell, who took this idea and used it to ask the question, "How much blood would you shed to stay alive?" The answer resulted in their very unique movie Saw.

SAW (2004)The film opens as two men awaken in a dank, filthy restroom. The place looks more like a dungeon than a latrine, which becomes even worse as the two strangers find themselves chained to pipes on opposite ends of the room. Not helping things is the bloody corpse between them, the apparent victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the face.

Introducing themselves as Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and Adam Stanheight (Leigh Whannell), neither have a clear idea of why or how they arrived in their depressing predicament. Through clues left for them by their captor, Dr. Gordon deduces that he and his roommate are pawns in a game set up by Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), a serial murderer who goes to extreme and disturbing lengths to teach his victims the value of their own life and the lives of those around them.

The clues also give them the rules for their game: Dr. Gordon must find a way to kill Adam within a set time limit, or his wife (Monica Potter) and daughter (Makenzie Vega) will die. Jigsaw has given Dr. Gordon a single bullet for the dead man's gun, along with a pair of hacksaws that aren't sharp enough to cut through their chains, but can cut through their ankles. Since they obviously don't want to cause themselves or each other any bodily harm, Adam and Dr. Gordon must search for a way to outwit their captor before they die a slow death in their makeshift tomb. While Jigsaw stalks his trapped prey, he is in turn being tracked by David Tapp (Danny Glover), a suspended detective obsessed with catching Jigsaw and avenging the death of his partner.

Saw is one of those movies that you'll probably either really like or really hate. It has an intriguing premise, great atmosphere, and lots of potential, but there's just something about it that brings it down to less than what it could be. Let's go with the bad news first. The acting is very hit or miss at times. I usually enjoy the work of Cary Elwes, but he seemed inconsistent here. He was on his A-game throughout the majority of the movie, but in quite a few scenes, he overacts to the point of being laughably lame. Though to his credit, I did like what he was doing through most of the movie. Leigh Whannell wasn't all that great, either. He has a few good moments, but his lack of any major acting experience is sadly obvious. One could make the argument that he used his stroke as co-writer to stick himself in one of the lead roles, merely so he could say, "I starred in a movie! I rule!" I did, however, enjoy Shawnee Smith as a Jigsaw survivor and Danny Glover as the disturbed Detective Tapp, but my favorite member of the cast is Tobin Bell. Because of Jigsaw's shadiness, he does ninety percent of his acting with his voice, and I felt that he did a tremendous job. He comes off as a holier-than-thou psychopath with just his vocal tone, which not only makes for a great character and effective antagonist, but immensely boosts the quality of the movie.

Visually, the movie looks wonderfully disgusting. Director James Wan and cinematographer David Armstrong give us a movie that by looks alone is both horrific and intriguing. Through their use of green and blue color filters, slow motion and fast motion, and wicked camera angles and scene transitions, I have nothing but compliments over how the movie looks, especially Nanet Harty's astounding set design. After watching the bathroom set for an hour and a half, I felt like I needed a shower and a tetanus shot. Great work, that is. The film's creativity can also be seen in the grisly traps Jigsaw subjects his victims to, whether it be the backwards bear trap, the candle in a room full of napalm, or the maze of barbed wire. I also absolutely loved the heavy industrial score, composed by Charlie Clouser (formerly of the band Nine Inch Nails). It sounds like it's a Trent Reznor appearance away from being a Nine Inch Nails album, and I definitely can't complain. The script, co-written by Wan and Whannell, has its ups and downs thanks to the occasional bit of clichéd dialogue, but I loved how layered the movie is. The non-linear timeline and "flashback within a flashback" moments can be disorienting if you aren't expecting it, and the ending might not make sense to the casual viewer, but that's part of the movie's charm. The odd storytelling allows to truly grasp how vicious the film's villain is. Similar to Kevin Spacey's "John Doe" in Seven, Jigsaw is intelligent and meticulous, not someone who is easily defeated because he just couldn't stop detailing his plan to the hero when he could just kill him instead.

Jigsaw is also a very unique type of horror villain, in that he does not directly kill his victims. He instead opts to place them in his elaborate traps, giving them the choice to act and live, or do nothing and die. Through this, Jigsaw sees himself not as a killer, but as a teacher. It is his master plan to instill a respect for life into the ones he chooses to play his games, to show them that life is a treasure to be highly valued. And while the rare survivor will quite possibly bear some extreme emotional and physical scarring afterwards, they will most likely appreciate being alive and do what they can to avoid another of Jigsaw's lessons. This sort of thing is what sets Jigsaw apart from other villains. He doesn't hack and slash his way through a dozen victims, but instead uses his intellect to create far more elaborate methods of execution. What also sets him apart is that, despite his apparent sadism, he seems to draw some satisfaction from the survival of his victims. Survivors will most likely take Jigsaw's lesson to heart. Those that don't survive end up reinforcing Herbert Spencer's theory of "survival of the fittest."

If you ask me, I thought Saw was a well-crafted piece of nihilism. When I first saw it, I thought it was trying too hard to be a Seven for the twenty-first century, but it grew on me after repeated viewings. The movie never fails to take a chance and try something the viewer wouldn't expect. The premise drew me in (who would think to combine Cube and Seven?), and the execution, though flawed in places, paid off. The movie's suspense builds and builds, and though you may or may not like the ending, the buildup to it is as intense as it gets. Like I said, you'll either like it or hate it, but its originality makes it worth a watch. I'll give Saw three and a half stars and a hearty thumbs-up.

Final Rating: ***½