Worth A Look: 17.3%
Pretty Bad: 10.27%
Total Crap: 16.76%
15 reviews, 280 user ratings
by David Hollands
Saw is a movie so overstuffed and so over-edited, that it seems like Darren Aronofsky had a crack at making it.Saw begins as Adam, a photographer, wakes up in the bathroom from Hell. Across the room from him is Dr. Gordon, a man who has cheated on his wife and treats his patients as if they were mere objects. Both are chained to pipes, and a dead man who blew his brains out lies between them. Adam and Dr. Gordon hear the voice of the Jigsaw Killer, who tells them that Dr. Gordon is to kill Adam before 6:00 or his wife and child will die.
"I saw Saw, and the results ain't pretty."
James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell seem to think that they are making a breathtakingly original film, and so the movie has that sense of snotty false originality to it. I would be able to get over that, if parts of the movie actually were in any way original. Most insultingly, it tries an unbelievable four times to keep us off guard as to the identity of the killer. Problem is, even when the possible killer is revealed, he was presented earlier in such an obvious fashion, that we just know he won't turn out to be who he is by the final reel.
While in any other film that could a positive, here it's a negative, since Wan can't sustain suspense to save his life. The numerous boring sequences could easily have been salvaged if some kind of uncertainty remained, though since we are aware that Wan and company don't seem to be interested in playing fair, a feeling of "anything can happen" overwhelms us. That kind of story structure can hardly maintain a story for even five minutes. Here, that feeling shows up in Saw after the first twenty minutes, and because hardly any suspense can be salvaged from the remaining sequences, we're left in a state of aggravating limbo for much of the movie.
The ways in which Wan uses the flashbacks in this film become extremely annoying. He and Whannell seem to think that the audience is full of absolute idiots. At one moment, a flashback we just saw is then repeated five minutes later for no real reason. Whenever the possible killer is revealed, things usually flashback to slow motion sequences of the character saying key dialogue for about thirty seconds. Not only do we already get the point that it's a possible suspect when either Dr. Gordon or Adam talk about him or her, but then in pops a flashback; just in case we're stupid, I suppose.
The flashbacks also don’t work in the way that they freely yank suspense out of thin air. By starting the film with the two men in the room, any sequence that then tries to pull suspense by putting them in danger during a flashback basically fails because we’re already aware how they will end up. Now, one can easily argue that suspense can still be pulled because one wouldn’t know when the attack on the character would occur, and I agree. Of course, the direction of those moments needs to be pretty damn good, and Wan just isn’t talented enough. While a sequence in which Adam searches his blackened apartment is good, suspense is still dissipated when we realize that all Adam needed to do to get out of his situation was quickly head right for the front door. The assailant is revealed to be hiding in a closet, which makes one wonder why Adam never just left and called the police.
The script itself is one of the most idiotically bloated affairs I’ve seen in a long while. In just ninety minutes, these are all the plots and subplots that come our way: the two guys in the room scenario, the two cops on the trail of the killer, a cop who becomes a burn out after his partner is killed, contrived secrets revealed about the two guys in the room, a killer not really being a killer not really being a killer, wife and child in danger, sneaky photographer… Most of these subplots could have been thrown out the window. The burned out cop, for one thing, serves no other purpose than to give the main characters a brief head start on the villain. Without him doing anything substantial, why was he even included in the film at all?
The scenario inside the room quickly becomes boring as well after a while, because these scenes, while occasionally creepy, are filled with some of the most nonsensical happenings I’ve seen in a long time. Yet again, we have another one of those situations where the killer seems to have been able to predict every single move these men make over the course of six hours. In fact, the final twist absolutely relies on this to be effective, and it becomes even less so when we realize that only extreme coincidence and convenience brought it to that point. Plus, the dialogue in the closed-in bathroom scenes is just atrocious. It constantly brings one right out of the film, because it practically causes one’s ears to bleed, it’s so hideous. It’s also completely inappropriate to the situation most of the time. When the tension desperately needs to be high, Wan goes for an extremely cheap sex joke. At one moment that only seems there for pointless gross-out effect, Adam must reach into a shit-filled toilet. He proceeds to make a dumb joke immediately thereafter that shatters suspense like a sledgehammer to a glass window.
Not only that, but there are some elements to the plot that don’t really seem to make even the slightest bit of sense. The little bit of information regarding the killer removing pieces of flesh in the form of puzzle pieces is interesting, and yet it feels hopelessly tacked on in hopes that it will be seen as something smart. It’s only in the film for a minute, and is never mentioned again. Also, one really has to wonder how this killer is able to find all these locations in which to keep his victims without arousing any suspicion. Plus, some of the traps the killer thinks up for his victims are diabolical and cruel, to be sure, yet they also make one wonder how, especially after a certain reveal come the movie's conclusion, he can possibly set these up, execute them, and then leave without arousing any suspicion. I suppose one has to assume that these locations are in isolated areas near the killer’s hideout (which just happens to be on Stygian Street, for crying out loud), yet one wonders why the police never bothered to search any of the surrounding buildings, especially considering the amount of bodies that were piling up in these locations.
The conclusion of Saw is also hopelessly predictable, with only a few forcefully harsh moments that stand out. Even though we can see it coming, it’s still an extreme letdown. Every single cliche of the thriller genre comes into play in the conclusion. Everything from an assailant who always talks before shooting (naturally allowing the victim to have an advantage) all the way to an over the top reliance on extreme violence to carry the last few minutes of the film. That’s really disappointing, especially so given that the film was actually fairly restrained in terms of its violence. That made the outbursts of violence or gore before the conclusion somewhat surprising. At the end of the movie, however, all the cards are laid out on the table, and the onslaught of “terror” becomes tired after the first thirty seconds. Not to mention the fact that Wan has to keep track of three different events occurring simultaneously, and he compensates for his lack of ability in this area by introducing tons of brain-melting quick edits, as if that would somehow distract audience members from the flaws. It distracts all right, but obviously not in the way that Wan intended.
Many sequences in the film that are obviously meant to be terrifying beyond belief actually come off as unbelievably silly. James Wan even manages to screw up making one of the most frightening-looking puppets in recent memory scary. It’s completely misused. While its appearances in the grainy video footage in the movie are somewhat affecting, all terror immediately dissipates when the thing’s mouth just flaps about like a broken ventriloquist’s dummy. Not only that, but after one of the victims manages to make it out of The Jigsaw Killer’s traps alive, the thing rides in on a tricycle to let the victim go. I’m sorry, but the way the sequence is shot only makes the puppet look unbelievably stupid instead of scary.
Other bits of visual foolishness involve a helmet that is ripped off almost completely from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome; while the concept worked in Videodrome, in Saw, the art department appeared to be shooting way too high. In an attempt to make the thing creepy, they’ve over-designed it to cringe-inducing levels, the age-old principal of “less is more” never seeming to occur to them once. Finally, the main villain’s costume throughout the film looks like something rejected from M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. That’s pretty sad, especially so considering that the monsters in Shyamalan’s immensely boring film looked like something ripped off from Sesame Street. Any time the villain in the movie shows up in that costume, laughter flies fast and furious, almost threatening to cause the cinema to collapse.
There are some positives to this movie, yet hardly enough to fully save the film. For one thing, the cinematography by David Armstrong evokes memories of the style of Dario Argento’s best films. The movie is filled with incredibly stylized colours that practically leap off the screen. The scenes inside the deserted bathroom have an extreme intensity, lighting-wise, that just creeps you out. While the events occurring underneath the lighting are ridiculous, the cinematography still helps to subtly instill terror in the audience’s collective subconscious. Almost every location has a feeling of extreme dread to it that’s hardly realistic, yet still seems acceptable.
The music by Nine Inch Nails veteran Charlie Clouser is absolutely amazing. Clouser seems to be taking a page from the Kurt Swinghammer style of composing, because both this score and Swinghammer’s amazing work on Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed are very similar. The music here is extremely grungy, done mainly with synthesizers that sound as if the musical notes have been processed into oblivion. This gives the movie a very rough, cold sound that fits in perfectly with the style of the film. While the music does blare loudly during many moments of the movie, for some reason, it just works. That really surprises me, because usually non-stop loud music during sequences gets tired, and yet this doesn’t occur in Saw. Also noteworthy is that there are a few moments in which Clouser chooses to let total silence take over. These don’t occur often, but when they do, it’s a major blessing.
The performances are the best they can possibly be given the atrocious dialogue, which is to say, pretty terrible. Cary Elwes comes off as depressingly awful. He doesn’t seem to be able to elevate the material beyond much of anything, and so he instead relies on over the top theatrics to carry the show. This gets old after two minutes. Even when simply standing in the shot, we sense absolutely no life whatsoever coming from the guy, which is too bad, given that he is a pretty talented actor. In the movie, Elwes’ character must go from sane to completely mad, and the transformation is forced and obvious.
Leigh Whannell, though, is much, MUCH worse. Throughout the entire film, his only tone of voice is extremely loud and high-pitched. Listening to him speak is one of the most annoying things I’ve had to endure, and I’ve seen Battlefield Earth.
Michael Emerson takes his role of a psychotic and does exactly the opposite of what he should: he goes down the Anthony Hopkins/Hannibal Lector path of overacting, making his work in the film obvious and overblown. I’m sorry, but there’s just nothing even remotely interesting about watching verbalized Kabuki Theatre for 60 minutes. It grows tired and dull, and we just start wishing for some kind of layered and deep portrayal.
Danny Glover as the grizzled detective is really the only one here that appears to be even remotely alive. Even though his role is fairly small, he still makes the most of it, and actually digs into his character rather than simply putting on a bad show. We get to see the person underneath the portrayal, which definitely helps us to identify with the character. Now, if only Glover had been in the film for more than fifteen minutes…
The major miscalculation here is unfortunately by director James Wan. Whenever something disturbing is supposed to happen, Wan has the camerabatics go annoyingly wild. When Adam and Dr. Gordon first discover a body, the camera swoops around it, while extremely quick edits and loud sound effects practically cause us to vomit from exhaustion. When showing some of The Jigsaw Killer’s other victims in their predicaments, he does this as well. He uses sped-up film stock, a circular dolly rig, and lots of distracting movements from the actors themselves to try and sell the fact that what we are watching is something frightening. Sadly, in this case, it’s all just style over substance. When this happens, the camerabatics and directorial exuberance becomes a wall that separates the audience from the action, which immediately reduces any kind of fear. We notice the camera movement more than what it’s supposed to be enhancing, which is too bad, given that this movie is desperately in need of some kind of actual suspense.
Even though some moments of the movie feel claustrophobic while we are in the bathroom, Wan still screws things up even more by being too loose with his camera movements. We never feel as if we are trapped in the confines of a small room, because the camera is usually doing something that would indicate that a wall has been pulled out or a floor removed. This happens frequently, which is an immediate signal to the audience that they are indeed watching a movie. While this kind of thing has occasionally benefited a film (Brian DePalma’s Blow Out comes to mind), here it just doesn’t work, especially when the feeling that the director is trying to bring out is one of total confinement and isolation.Saw is over-stuffed, over-edited, over-performed, over-directed, and just plain annoying. While the movie gets a few small points for some extremely gruesome money shots, there’s just so much awfulness, that any positives are immediately cancelled out. It's a lot like Canadian bacon: it may look good, but the fat ruins the taste every time.
link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=8560&reviewer=355
originally posted: 11/10/04 14:24:08
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