It would probably be appropriate to say from the outset that I really have a hard time with movies where torture is a central theme. Years of moviegoing have desensitized me to most forms of big screen violence; it might bother me thematically, but I can get through it. Torture, however, seriously freaks me out. This is a major reason why the film Seven was Ė and is Ė so repulsive to me. I was therefore a bit nervous walking into Saw. I had heard of at least one critic walking out 20 minutes into the film, and several others Iím acquainted with had described it using various synonyms for nauseating.
I neednít have worried, because Saw is so utterly preposterous that it didnít affect me psychologically in the least. Oh, itís a sick and twisted movie all right. No one would deny that. But I just couldnít bring myself to get worked up over something as fundamentally absurd as this.
The story begins with two men Ė Adam (Leigh Whannell, who also scripted) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) waking up in a dingy, institutional-looking bathroom somewhere. Each man has one leg shackled to a pipe. In the center of the room rests a dead body, a gun in one hand and a pool of blood spread out around it. They also discover a mini cassette player and two audiotapes. The mysterious voice on the tapes informs Lawrence that he has until 6:00 PM to kill Adam, or both will perish. Or, if they can figure out the clues scattered throughout the room, they might be able to escape. The presence of two saws indicates that they could get free by cutting through their own legs.
Lawrence surmises that he and Adam are the latest victims of the so-called Jigsaw Killer. Like most serial killers in the movies, Jigsaw has a gimmick: he devises elaborate games designed to cause his victims to mutilate themselves. Thanks to a subplot involving two cops (Danny Glover and Ken Leung) who are investigating Jigsaw, we see the results of his other games, like making a guy crawl through an impossible maze of barbed wire to escape. In another gruesome sequence, he puts a woman into a contraption that will tear her jaw apart unless she sticks her hand into a manís stomach to extract the key that will unlock it.
Iím really starting to resent this cinematic trend of serial killers with gimmicks. Itís become standard operating procedure, even though real serial killers rarely (if ever) operate in such ways. Granted, they all have some sort of modus operandi, but when was the last time you heard of a serial killer who patterned murders after the seven deadly sins? Or killed only the lovers of a certain homicide detective? Or played little mind games to encourage his victims to saw through their own legs?
I would argue that such gimmicks actually rob these films of their suspense. Remember that scene in The Silence of the Lambs where Buffalo Bill has the woman trapped in his basement well? That scene is scary because it could really happen. Buffalo Bill needs no gimmick to make him frightening. He kidnaps women and throws them down a well until heís ready to skin them. What could be creepier than that? Certainly not the Jigsaw Killer, who spends most of his time creating puzzles.
The movie shows all of the torture devices in fetishistic style. Director James Wan clearly loves the idea of putting characters into these gruesome situations. The audience is meant to get off on them as well. It is clearly the intention of Saw to make dismemberment look cool and to give the audience a cheap rush by putting unspeakably awful ideas into our heads. Thereís something kind of demented about that. Itís not my idea of entertainment.
I might have been really offended by such a tactic had Saw not been so utterly imbecilic. For starters, this Jigsaw guy has a helluva lot of free time on his hands to be coming up with so many elaborate puzzles. Is he a killer or a member of Mensa? Then thereís the requisite trick ending, which in this case is a howler of epic proportions. When the trick is revealed, for a split second I thought, ďWell, I havenít seen that before!Ē Then I realized that I hadnít seen it before because it sucks. The twist is ridiculous beyond the capacity of words to explain it. There will be no more unintentionally hilarious scene this year.
Had Saw been a claustrophobic, two-character morality play about those guys chained in the bathroom looking for a way out, it might have generated real suspense. That Hitchcockian approach seems to be beyond the filmmakers, though. They opt to go for the easy grossout method instead. This is just a pointless exercise in shock value.
( out of four)
Saw is rated R for strong grisly violence and language. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.
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