THE STORY – Photographer Adam Stanheight (Leigh Whannell) and oncologist Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) regain consciousness while chained to pipes at either end of a filthy bathroom. As the two men realize they’ve been trapped by a sadistic serial killer nicknamed “Jigsaw” and must complete his perverse puzzle to live, flashbacks relate the fates of his previous victims. Meanwhile, Dr. Gordon’s wife (Monica Potter) and young daughter (Makenzie Vega) are forced to watch his torture via closed-circuit video.
THE CAST – Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Michael Emerson, Ken Leung, Tobin Bell & Leigh Whannell
THE TEAM – James Wan (Director) & Leigh Whannell (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 103 Minutes
By Josh Williams
James Wan is quite possibly one of, if not the best, modern horror director. Kick-starting two separate horror franchises with “Insidious” and “The Conjuring,” Wan has garnered not only massive commercial success but also some critical raves from time to time. Now while his horror is often chalked up as being “cheap” he still understands how to build tension and pay it off in a big way and none of his films do this better than his debut film, the influential and still memorable “Saw.” With a simple yet enticing plot, the biggest strength “Saw” possesses is how Wan chooses to tell the story. Mixing a violent horror film with a classic whodunit style, “Saw” is meticulous in its storytelling methods making it one of the greatest horror films of the 21st century.
When two strangers awake in a bathroom with no recollection of how they got there or why, they discover that they are caught in the midst of a game of cat mouse with a dangerous serial killer simply known as Jigsaw (Tobin Bell). Jigsaw is a man who gets his kicks by placing his victims in dangerous, twisted games that he has crafted himself. These games are meant to prove a demented point to the victims by forcing them to chose whether they want to live or die. They can either die a painful death by either not partaking in said games or by failing to execute the orders that Jigsaw gives. Or they can endure an excruciating amount of pain and suffering in order to stay alive. Most victims land in that first category which is why this film and the entirety of the “Saw” franchise is known for being a bloody disgusting mess.
In the first installment of the franchise, our two main characters are Adam (Leigh Whannel), a freelance photographer, and Dr. Lawrence Gordron (Cary Elwes, who gives a very tortured performance), a surgeon. The two are chained to these massive pipes in opposite corners of the room. As time passes the two learn more and more about each other which leads to terrifying truths. Adam and Dr. Gordon must put their brains together in order to escape from the sickening bathroom they’ve been placed in. More and more discoveries arise as the film goes on. For example, they discover a bag hidden in a toilet that holds two hacksaws. After some painful attempts to cut through their chains, the two realize that Jigsaw intends for them to cut through their own feet.
As you can tell there are a lot of complex pieces within this film. The story constantly jumps back and forth between Adam and Dr. Gordon inside this industrially sized bathroom, each of their backstories, and the third story of two cops chasing down the Jigsaw killer. We get glimpses into how the two of them ended up being chosen for Jigsaw’s game which gives us some nice character development. We get to see Dr. Gordon be a slimy rich guy who cheats on his wife and abandons his daughter, even though he imposes this loving father figure persona onto Adam. Then we get to see Adam, a poor freelance photographer barely skating by in his crappy little slice of life. Then on top of all that we get to witness an investigation that two detectives are in the midst of. Detective Tapp (Danny Glover) and Detective Sing (Ken Leung) who are desperately trying to piece together the puzzle that Jigsaw has laid out for them. Sorry, bad pun.
Now while all of that may seem like just a mess of storytelling, there actually is minimal confusion in the process. The story is told at a perfect pace and never skips over any small details. There are actually moments where the film will solely focus on the whodunit aspect instead of the horror aspect. This film is actually the least gory of the entire “Saw” franchise which is pleasing, not only to the eyes but to the stomach. The film traverses across all these different storylines and manages to never get lost in the shuffle. Instead of cutting back and forth at critical moments during the storylines, Wan likes to let us watch these moments play out in full. When the two detectives discover big leads on Jigsaw we get to watch them travel down the rabbit hole and search for answers. Though, when they get close to something tangible like an answer, Wan doesn’t cut away. He lets us experience their discovery and how it will play into not only their storyline but the other two storylines as well.
Another aspect that excels with flying colors is the editing. Not only is the jumping between the different stories excellently done but it highlights how truly alive the film feels. “Saw” was made in 2004 and boy does it certainly feel like it was made in that time period. In the murder scenes, the edits are fast and disorienting in order to give us this feeling of confusion and nervousness. From Ken Burns still frame edits, to smash cuts into different locations in the room, the film is meant to be incredibly energetic in the murder sequences. This style of editing is not necessarily new or original but it is the context in which it’s used that helps to give “Saw” a unique feel and identity, which it carried over to seven subsequent sequels. While the scenes between Adam and Dr. Gordon are slow moving and dialogue heavy, the murder scenes are jarring and ravenous. By contrasting the editing of the bathroom scenes with the murder scenes, the film feels much more sophisticated in its storytelling than the later sequels which went more for full-blown “torture porn” and non-sensical storytelling purely for shock value.
“Saw” is a meticulous, violent, and gritty horror story that is certain to fill that Halloween movie void in your chest. With a precise and interesting story, characters who you care about (Despite the cheesy nature of some of the acting, particularly from Leigh Whannell, who also serves as the screenwriter) the film manages to land its intense moments and wrap it up with one of the most memorable twist-endings in recent memory. “Saw” set the foundation for a new sub-genre within horror, paving the way for a lot of knock-off B-level horror movies. Despite the gore obsession in the following films, this first installment still holds up.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – The storytelling by director James Wan is masterful in terms of its pace and editing. One of the best endings to a horror film, ever.
THE BAD – The film does divelge into some gore obsession which can be quite off putting for those with weak stomachs. The acting (Particularly from Leigh Whannell) can be quite poor at times.
THE FINAL SCORE – 8/10