Torture porn will probably never go out of fashion. Somewhere, in the dank bowls of some abandoned warehouse, or the Glade-scented heights of California office buildings, freshly swept by underpaid immigrant workers, filmmakers will continue to feed expendable characters into increasingly-ridiculous grist mills. And people will pay to see it, always and forever more. Self-appointed moral guardians should take note of this and realize the futility of their mission. It’s the way of the Force, kid, get used to it. Move on, and take your goddamned squeamishness with you. The rest of us will be over here, wondering how in the hell people can be so stupid to mistake this for a horror movie?
Beyond that, Saw is the most-profitable horror franchise of all time, given that it (and its six-and-counting sequels) are made for the Hollywood equivalent of chickenfeed. The film opens in the dank bowls of an abandoned warehouse. We find Our Protagonists, Adam (Leigh Whannell, who co-wrote this…thing…with his film school friend/our director, James Wan) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), chained to either side of a squalid bathroom. The dead man between them holds a gun in one hand and a tape recorder in the other. The microcassetts in Adam and Larry’s pockets clue them into The Plot.
Larry has until 6 p.m. to escape his chains and kill Adam. Should Adam live to see sunset, Larry’s wife (Monica Potter) and daughter (Makenzie Vega) will become the latest victims of our movie’s Psycho, the (dramatic pause) Jigsaw Killer. So named for his love of dumping victims into elaborate, deadly, and “ingenious” traps. Jigsaw’s apparently been terrorizing…whatever city this is…for months. And Larry knows this because he must know this. It is his purpose. How else could he trigger the flashbacks that’ll clue us, the audience, into The Plot of which Adam and Dr. Larry are but bit players?
It seems Detectives Sing (Ken Leung) and Trap (Danny Muh-fucking Glover!), the pair of Movie Cops charged with bringing Jigsaw to heel, fingered Larry for a suspect in the not-too-distant-past. Thankfully, he really was cheating on his wife at the time of Jigsaw’s last atrocity exhibition. But just to make sure Larry (and we) understand what a Bad Ass Killer Jigsaw is, Detective Trapp trots out his only surviving victim, Amanda (Shawnee Smith)…so she can wedge in yet another flashback…to her ordeal inside the Killer of the Week’s little “game.”
Amanda, a former drug addict, woke up tied to a chair with a headbrace inspired by City of Lost Children’s poster art wound ’round her face. Jigsaw gave her a set time to fish this device’s key out of the guts of her “cellmate”…who, despite not being quite as dead as Jigsaw led Amanda to believe, nevertheless yielded the key up without fuss. Amanda escaped her “reverse bear trap” and Jigsaw spared her life. He even threw in some Stockholm Syndrome, the same way video game consoles give you trophies for beating story missions.
There’s a lot of critical noise about this new wave of “horror” filmmakers: bright younglings hot out of film school and unashamed to drench their movies in fake guts and bleak inhumanity. The “Splat Pack” they’re called. Being film school grads, they’ve acknowledge their obvious and heartfelt love of classic Eurotrash horror films of the 70s, as well as their American counterparts in the Grindhouse. This film’s looking at you, Dario Argento. But for my money, Saw owns more to annoying Survival Horror video games than to any honest-to-god giallo. Jigsaw’s traps are “ingenious” in the same way as certain puzzles inside the Resident Evil or Clocktower series (he said, probably giving away his age): diverting, certainly…but nothing that will disguise the fact that Jigsaw is a comic book villain in the worst possible way.
Now, I like Johnny the Homicidal Maniac as much as the next man, but I cannot condone this philosophy-free claptrap. Stylized violence is the salt of horrific cinema. Saw takes it for the meat, leaving us the cinematic equivalent of beer nuts. It’s makers have devoted themselves to what H.P. Lovecraft dismissed as “the mundanely gruesome.” Their forebears, by contrast, created genuine “fear-literature” back in the 70s and 80s. The early works of, say, Tobe Hooper…or our good friend, George Romero…testify that film can freeze the essence of Fear in its unblinking gaze and show that to the world five times a day…assuming it wants to bother.
Instead, the makers of Saw bothered about fake intestines, needlessly-elaborate traps only Lex Luthor could finance, and wounds that might be quite grisly…were we allowed to see them. But director Wan’s ill-advised allegiance to Michael Bay’s Rule of Editing (“Two seconds without a cut is two too damn many”) leaves no room for me to enjoy my horror movie “money shots.”
Leigh Whannell once told Variety, “I don’t care if everyone looks down on us.” Alright. With your permission, then, as one writer to another, let me say this with a heavy but nonetheless-pure heart: Leigh, you’re doing it wrong. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to repeat the class. This is not horror. It’s just a parade of grotesques, all of which are stupid-gross. Cheap candy, full of sawdust, churned out quick and dirty by ill-educated hacks. Who can’t act. Edward Norton impressions do not a performance make, Leigh. I could be watching Fight Club right the hell now. Instead, I have to warn everyone I know and love away from your horrible film. As a certain in-souled vampire once said to his psychopathic son, You think I want to do this? You think I have a choice?
Where were we? Ah, yes. Had the film left us in Adam and Larry’s bathroom…had it had the courage to showcase two people’s slow slide to barbarity….Saw might’ve been good. Maybe one of the greats. Instead, we have yet another Se7en rehash, with Danny Glover in both Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt’s roles. And if that didn’t blow your mind out the back of your head and redecorate the walls with your brains, the film adds a little bit of Dark City‘s Colin Friels to the mix once Tapp’s driven insane by the death of his partner. We see this in flashbacks, of course.
Tapp’s flashback is a movie unto itself, reminding me of several. It even features Tapp’s Obligatory Dismissal from the Force for the high crime of Not Playing by the Rules. Unfortunately, Glover never gets to sneer “This time it’s personal,” like he does in some movies. Like an actual puzzle, but unlike Jigsaw’s cartoonish traps, the film unfolds in disorganized, disconnected pieces, allowing for a level of audience participation. This tricked the unwary into mistaking this film for something much more intelligent than it is…something actually horrifying. Something real and meaningful, instead of a boring mess with a high-octane opinion of itself.
Wait, I remember now…(as someone actually says at some point…can we get some more cliche down here; don’t think we’re cliched enough) as the hours and flashbacks drift by we return to Larry and Adam. Our Protagonists discover two hacksaws secreted away in their prison’s toilet. Dr. Larry figures Jigsaw intents them to saw off their own feet in order to “win” his “game.” Nice homage to Trainspotting, here, Wan. I’ll give you that. But, then again, I could be watching Trainspotting right now, etc. etc.
See, Saw is a film that cries out for an “etc.” or three. It skips like an old record, endlessly repeating the Flashback Formula. After our third or fourth trip down someone’s memory hole or another, Saw unmasks itself as a film overflowing with exposition. It reminds me of the time I watched Bob Sagget tell his version of The Aristocrats Joke: a long, vulgar set-up to a mediocre punchline. Human beings will just do the damnedest things to survive. Never heard that one before, eh?
And I really don’t care to hear it again. For some reason, unappealing characters are par for the course in mundanely gruesome movies like this, but c’mon. Did Adam have to be this big of a douche? You couldn’t have given him…oh, I don’t know…a story or something…he’s a photographer, fine. But so what? Oh, what’s that you say? “So, it’s a convenient plot contrivance that sets up an Obligatory Twist about two thirds into the film.” Well, say no more, genius. Allow me to strewn your path with dismembered co-eds and roses, and how would you like a guaranteed seven picture deal to go with that?
Imagine what you, dear reader, could do with such a thing…and marvel at how thoroughly Saw‘s makers have wasted their golden opportunity. They could’ve gone on to become the new New Wave of Horror for our benighted twenty-first century. Instead, they’ve made six copies of this film. That’s a truly epic waste if you ask me, on par with anything James Cameron’s ever done.
But fugetaboutit. Set-up delivered, it’s time for the pay off. In true survival horror fashion, this means Our Protagonists attempt to escape Jigsaw’s “game” through the quick discovery and proper utilization of hidden packages items: keys, slips of paper, a cellphone that only receives calls…that bullet Dr. Larry found in his pocket. (Bet that won’t come in handy anytime near the end. No sir.) Except, instead of playing one of these flat, boring characters, I get to sit back and watch them. Joy to the fucking world.
At the very least, this film (and it’s spawn) annoy the shit out the MPAA, something few dare to do in this Corporate Apocalypse we so blithely called “the future.” That’s something. Not nearly enough, but I don’ t want to be negative…no matter how nihilistic Saw might or might not be. I’ve no problem with a work of art having a low opinion of humanity. The least you could do is respect humanity enough to portray its base, horrible nature with at least a nod to reality. After all, we meet these character’s in a bathroom and they spend half the movie reminiscing. Not about their lives, or any intrinsic (lack of) meaning those lives might’ve possessed, no. (If they did that, the terrorists literally would’ve won, I guess.) They reminisce about how they got into the bathroom. Not even a Vulcan would find that fascinating…but, then again, they spent the other half of the film…wait for it…questing about the very same bathroom like a scatological Scooby Duo.
Did Dr. Larry ever love his wife and/or child? If so, why cheat on them in the first place? His cheatin’ heart is the only crime we see on screen (apart from Jigsaw’s). Of course, Jigsaw knows more than we do…but a little sharing might’ve been nice.
You know the problem with masked killers? Reveals are like hand grenades: they only work once or they don’t work at all. And anyway, who cares if David Boreanaz was really the guy in the Cherub mask all this time? That only improves films you care to watch twice.
I didn’t miss anything because I had this film spoiled for me long, long ago…and I didn’t care then. It’s nice to know I was right. I’d like to propose a toast to myself, circa 2004. Stay frosty, Past Me. You’ve got it. What else is there to say about Saw? It’s horrible but does not horrify. I’ve got Tobe Hooper and Robert Rodriguez for that. I’ve got Tarantino and I’ve got a young(er) Scorsese. What have you got, James Wan? Other than millions of dollars…?
No, really, my time traveling bath tub and I kidnapped Martin Scorsese out of 1992. Nabbed him right after Cape Fear premiered. Got him tied up in my closet. With fifty thousand poisonous spiders. With tiny explosive charges strapped to their backs. If he crushes any of them in his attempt to escape he’ll win a brand new hole in his body. Then he can go back to the past and try making Kundun without hands. Because really…who goes from Goodfellas to a two and half hour bio-pic of the Dali Lama? In seven years? Seriously…the fuck?
You know, I think I just came up with my own little Jigsaw Puzzle (to coin a phrase). The “time traveling bath tub” really wouldn’t be out of place in Jigsaw’s repertoire. The man must have more money than Bruce Wayne, more time on his hands than Ollie Queen, and a perverse streak that would make the Joker giggle…before he hoisted Jigsaw by his own petard in some darkly-comedic way, ending the series with a laugh and smile. Much better than the blank screen and the final (punch) line which actually ends this film, once again betraying its roots and its true inspiration: “Game Over.”
You know, come to think of it, I could be watching Aliens right now…Game Over, man, it’s Game Over…