As is customary for the Halloween season, another studio has rolled out their horror film hoping to grab those looking to be frightened at the movies. Saw, in addition to benefitting from the Halloween weekend release date, is also a good deal better than last weekend’s The Grudge. However, despite having some things going for it, James Wan’s debut feature still has its share of problems, most of which are probably associated with it being Wan’s first movie.
Wan’s main inspiration is obviously David Fincher. The director has obviously studied Se7en carefully, and, while he doesn’t necessarily crib from the Brad Pitt film, the influence is there. Like Se7en, the storyline offers many surprises, but the basic premise is this: Two men (Cary Elwes and screenwriter Leigh Whannell) wake up and find themselves chained up on opposite ends of a bathroom, something right out of Trainspotting. They have been taken captive by “The Jigsaw Killer,” who has left them only a few clues and two hacksaws sharp enough to saw through flesh, but not metal. We learn that Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Elwes) has some prior involvement with the killer who has kidnapped Gordon’s wife and daughter (Monica Potter and Makenzie Vega). A burned-out police detective (Danny Glover) is involved as well, though we are not sure to what degree. Revealing anything more would be wrong; the film is based on surprises.
Wan is a promising director. His visual style is interesting and works very well for this project. Every frame is dark and unnerving and very nicely sets the mood.
The problems begin with the screenplay. Like most recent films of this genre, this movie has several big plot twists, the most significant of which appears in the final reel. One of the reasons Se7en worked so well was because the twisted goings on in the last 10 or so minutes made perfect sense in the context of the rest of the movie. It was an unsettling ending, but at the same time offered a sick sort of closure. Saw, however, asks the viewer to swallow some major contrivances in order to accept the ending.
The other huge problem is the acting. Cary Elwes has always been a rather unpleasant screen presence. With the exception of The Princess Bride, where he managed to make himself seem suave, Elwes has always just seemed like that obnoxious guy at work or school you go out of your way to avoid. It’s sort of appropriate here, since his character is a bit of a yuppie, but it is still bothersome.
Leigh Whannell, on the other hand, should never act again. Putting himself in the movie he wrote was obviously an act of egotism, and he hurts the movie more than he probably realizes. Whannell and Elwes trade overblown script readings for the duration of the movie. Eventually, it becomes so laughable, they achieve sort of a warped Brechtian effect, where the audience is so busy studying the overacting, they can’t really engage with the film.
While a wholehearted recommendation is not in order, Saw seems to be the scary movie to see this Halloween. It is a flawed movie by a rookie director, but it shows positive flashes of things to come.
Chuck DelRoss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.