James Wan makes his directorial debut with the gruesome horror movie Saw, a suspense thriller with a great concept, but absolutely horrible execution.
Cary Elwes stars as Dr. Lawrence Gordon, a man who wakes up in a room chained to a wall. At the other end is another man Adam (Leigh Whannell, who also wrote the screenplay) - who's in the same situation - and between them there's a dead man who apparently blew his own brains out. It turns out a psychopath has locked them in the room and expects one to kill the other - if Lawrence doesn't kill Adam, then his wife (Monica Potter) and daughter will die. As they search for a way to escape - and argue a lot - they recall the events that led to their incarceration and begin to realize the only way out may be to use the saws they've been given - on their legs.
Saw is a gory film, not far removed from Seven. One man is forced to climb his way through razor wire to escape; a woman has to dig through a man's stomach to find a key to keep her jaw from being torn off. Unfortunately, gore is about the only thing Saw has going for it.
Okay, that's not entirely true. The basic premise of the film - that a psychopath has locked two men up in a room and wants them to kill themselves - has a lot of potential. Honestly, that is the basis for an extraordinary thriller - if done right.
Unfortunately, Wan and screenwriter Whannell do not know how to structure a story. The movie is a jumbled mess, both with its dialogue and chronology. Saw tells much of its story through flashbacks, but the flashbacks only serve to cut up the pace of the story and avoid any need to create a really smart film. The movie would have been tremendously better had it told its story in chronological order. The flashbacks tell the story from too many perspectives, to the point where everything seems cluttered. Wan could have had a suspenseful film on his hands, but the way he delivers the plot results in a major loss of tension. Within five minutes, we know the two main characters have been kidnapped and that Lawrence's family is in peril, yet the flashbacks eventually go back and tell us the same things visually much later on. These scenes would have been suspenseful had we not known what was going to happen, but since we do...
In other words, Wan and Whannell should have sat down and looked at who the main characters are - the movie should have allowed us to see the perspectives of only the two main characters, and perhaps that of Lawrence's wife. Instead, we're given the perspective of a ludicrously lame cop (Danny Glover), victims of previous crimes and even the killer himself a few times. These perspectives work fine if a film is told in chronological order; however, since the movie works with flashbacks, storytelling cannot just jump to random characters. Had I written the movie (and I would love to get a chance to tackle it), I would've done it one of two ways: 1) I would never let the film leave the room. There'd be no flashbacks and the movie would rely on acting and dialogue to explain what had happened and what is going to happen. 2) I'd use the same scenes, but in linear order. That way, I'd be able to use more perspectives.
Some of the story is also pretty ludicrous, especially the parts involving the cops. Glover and his partner (Ken Leung) discover where the killer lives, but instead of getting a warrant and going in with backup, they say, "Who said anything about a warrant?" and head over there in the middle of the night without telling anyone else where they're going. Needless to say, the results aren't very professional. Most frustrating, however, is the fact the lead characters seem to spend hours talking and arguing with one another, yet neither of them even come close to attempting an escape that isn't on the killer's mind. The movie could have been much more tense had more time been spent on the two characters as they attempted to try various methods of escape.
To add insult to injury, the direction is pretty lackluster. Not much more can be expected considering this is Wan's first film; there are parts that look very professional, but there are plenty of times where Wan uses camera tricks for the sake of using camera tricks. In one scene, the camera rotates around a character several times at breakneck speeds to create a sense of panic, yet it just looks stupid. Worse, Wan's portrayal of a car chase between Glover's character and the killer is laughably bad.
Unfortunately, Saw's failure cannot be attributed entirely to the screenplay and direction; the cast is absolutely horrible. Amazingly, the movie features the recognizable cast of Cary Elwes, Danny Glover and Monica Potter, yet if you could hear the movie you'd expect to see a bunch of amateur actors in a high school play. Potter is okay, but Elwes is absolutely terrible. The audience cringed and laughed as he attempted to portray emotion on camera - the result is unbelievably bad. His co-star Whannell is equally terrible; neither actor is even partially convincing. For the first half of the movie, both actors are tolerable, but as things get tense near the end, most of the theater was laughing. As for Glover, his character is just pointless; I have no clue why he took the part.
In the end, it is the acting that truly kills the film; it takes any emotional strength the movie had and throws it right out the window.
If done right, Saw could be an incredibly exciting and smart film, but as is, it is a disappointing and terrible thriller that features some of the worst acting you will ever witness.
Thankfully, the movie is now out on DVD so you can relive that bad acting all over again. "Saw" comes in a simple but incredibly cool transparent package, which, unfortunately, is the highlight of the DVD. Aside from the fact that it contains the movie itself, which is bad enough, the special features leave little to be desired for. Strangely enough, most of the special features are devoted to a single, rather boring music video. There's the regular version, an unrated version and an uninformative behind-the-scenes look at the video. The "Sawed Off" minifeaturette contains a few brief interviews, but for the most part is way too promotional and provides little in the way of real content. A director's commentary might be the most interesting of all the features. If you loved "Saw," you're probably going to buy the DVD anyway, but the special features do nothing to enhance this bleak and disappointing film.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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