Movies about sadistic psychopaths seem to outnumber the number of hairs on a mad scientist’s head. But the diabolically addicting Saw shows that, as the old saying goes, there’s always room for one more. It succeeds where the likes of Halloween or Friday the 13th fail miserably, delivering a taut, intricate screenplay along with enough flesh-sloughing entertainment to keep blood lusters salivating for more. A low-budget film, Saw is nevertheless an impressive debut for director James Wan, who would go on to helm the even more polished Conjuring series about demonic possessions.
From the outset of the film, Wan displays his lenticular virtuosity. He begins with a close-up of a man’s face as he awakes in a bath tub. Discovering that he’s chained to a pipe in a dank underground bathroom, the man fruitlessly wails for help. As we’ll soon learn, his name is Adam (Leigh Whannell), and a muffled voice at the other end of the room signifies that he’s not alone. Turning on the lights at the other end of the room is his fellow captive, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes).
Wan deftly establishes the scene, his camera swiftly zooming in on several interrelated clues to emphasize the two mens’ perspectives. A man, presumably dead, is lying in the middle of the room in a pool of blood. In one hand is a microcassette recorder. In the other is a pistol. Now, Adam and Lawrence must work together, gradually piecing together their purpose as pawns in the sadistic game of a serial murderer aptly known to police as the “jigsaw killer” (Tobin Bell).
The script, which Wan co-wrote with Whannell, is an exercise in creating suspense through manipulation of time and space. The beginning of the film has a particularly claustrophobic effect; like Adam and Lawrence, we initially feel hopelessly trapped, unable to avert our eyes from the nauseating filth before us. Then, through a series of flashbacks, Lawrence and Adam gradually begin to recount to each other the events that led to their abduction. The camera transports us to the outside world, where we begin to feel a soupçon of hope that the captives might find a way out of their predicament. Perhaps that hope manifests itself in Detective David Tapp (Danny Glover). Alas, his bloodhound’s nose appears to be sniffing the wrong trail.
Though often characterized as a horror film, Saw would more accurately be characterized as a “psychological thriller.” With Hitchcockian deftness, Wan tosses a series of clues into the fray and enhances viewers’ suspense by allowing them to see the world from the protagonists’ confused perspectives. It may begin in dank, stagnant caverns, but the film crescendos into an illuminating manhunt drama that weaves together action, noir, and human-interest elements. Those who wince at the sight of blood may want to stay outside the dungeon, but Saw cuts a pretty fine slice of entertainment for the more intrepid.
Joe’s Grade: B+