Retro Review: Saw (2004)

Grim suspense undermined by pathetic plot twists

saw posterIt might be a bit of an over-reaction to state that this film is all buzz and no blade, but this is definitely a case where “the Phenomenon outweighs The Film.” SAW is a movie of relatively modest (though admittedly undeniable) achievement, but it’s impact was blown out of all proportion by rabid fan reaction and more than a few film critics, who seemed to think we were seeing a major masterpiece.

Of course, the film also provoked its share of backlash, with people either loving or hating it. What is hard to understand is why the reaction should have been so polarized. There are good things and bad things about SAW, and all of them should be fairly obvious to any viewer, whether pro or con, which should have resulted in much more of a middle-of-the-road response, rather than the extreme reactions that actually occurred.

The basic premise is gripping: two guys (PRINCESS BRIDE’s Cary Elwes and co-writer Leigh Whannell) wake up chained in a locked room where they have been stashed by a serial killer who thinks up methodical ways to force his victims to kill each other or die trying. While these two characters struggle to find a way out of their predicament, the film intercuts the efforts of an ex-police detective (Danny Glover) to track down the killer.

Much of the action is intense, even terrifying. Several flashbacks of the killer’s previous victims reveal a certain talent for imagining sick scenarios that are absolutely appalling — not just gruesome but morally troubling as well, with characters trapped in ugly situations where they must do horrible things or perish. This lends the film a genuinely disturbing air that lifts it several levels above the standard slasher-horror flick.

As a director, James Wan uses a certain MTV-stylishness to rev up these sequences. The flashy, spinning camera work not only looks cool; it also conveys the sense of a subjective experience — the hysterical, psychological turmoil facing each character as they try to free themselves from their predicament before time runs out.

So far, so good. Where the film falters is in tying all of these elements together into a cohesive whole. The intense moments feel like a series of great sequences that the writers thought up and then realized after the fact: Wait a minute — we’ve got to figure out a way to string this together and explain why the killer would be doing it.

The contrivances used to justify the action often verge on the pathetic, with arbitrary plot twists that masquerade as clever writing when they are actually born of desperation. All too obviously, the killer’s actions are motivated by what the script needs to keep the story going. The result feels contrived and manipulative in the extreme — which is almost forgivable because the suspense works so well most of the time.

What’s not forgivable is this: much of the plotting is relentlessly stupid. In order to ratchet up the tension (and keep the serial killer alive and kicking to work more harm), the film assembles a cast of idiots who make wrong decisions at every turn; otherwise, the horrible predicament would be resolved far too easily.

For example, midway through, the police blow an obvious and easy opportunity to catch the killer, because (among other things) they can’t shoot straight — not even with a shotgun at point blank range. Also, the plot relies on the killer’s ability to blackmail one victim with the threat that he has been given a slow-acting poison, for which an antidote will be supplied if the victim follows orders within a certain time limit. We might forgive the hapless victim for falling for such a ruse (what kind of lethal poison has no symptoms, kills with clockwork accuracy, and can be cured at the absolute last minute without fail?) except for one thing: the guy works in a hospital! Even though he’s not a doctor, how hard would it be for him to get a little medical advice — surely easier than holding a mother and her child hostage at gunpoint for several hours while the “poison” allegedly works its way through his system.

As if this were not bad enough, the film totally throws away any remaining credibility with a truly ridiculous surprise ending, one so terrible that it demands to be revealed.

The two lead characters are trapped in a room with a body (presumably of a previous victim) between them. After much agony (including sawing off his own foot), one escapes his chains and hobbles away, promising to return. Whereupon the body on the floor rises up, revealing itself to be the killer, who slams the door shut on the remaining victim. What happens next? Does the first victim get away and get help? Or does the killer manage to catch him (shouldn’t be hard since the guy is missing a leg).

The film does not bother to tell us. Presumably, the surprise shock of the body turning out not to be dead is supposed to be satisfying enough to work as an ending all on its own. But it is absolutely idiotic. Why didn’t the two characters hear his breathing in the dark, before they got the lights on? Why didn’t they see him breathing after they got the lights on? And how is this guy able to remain absolutely still for hours and then get up and waltz away without his muscles cramping up?

Why anyone would sing hymns of praise to a film with an ending this bad is a true mystery. Certainly, there is much that is praiseworthy in SAW, but that should not be enough to blind perceptive viewers to horrible flaws and the almost casual carelessness and contempt with which the filmmakers throw away any semblance of credibility for the finale. Having lifted itself up so high in some ways, it’s a shame that, in the end, the film sinks down to the level of just being another dumb horror movie.

TRIVIA

SAW turned out to be the opening salvo in a short-lived trend that became known as “Torture Porn” – a fairly accurate description that nevertheless drew protest from defenders, who complained that the term was dismissive and derogatory.

SAW (2004). Directed by James Wan. Written by Leigh Whannell, from a story by Wan & Whannell. Cast: Leigh Whannell, Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Ken Leung, Dina Meyer, Mike Butters, Shawnee Smith, Monica Potter.

Copyright 2004 Steve Biodrowski