Friday, November 5, 2004

Saw / **1/2 (2004)

Unconventional brilliance or over-the-top fodder? These are the two answers that come to mind when one questions the achievement that is "Saw," especially as it leaps ever-so-zealously towards an ambitious climax. Up to that point, the movie's near-numbing attack on the senses has a certain zeal that is almost commendable - its approach a drastic departure from the most recent Hollywood horror films - and viewers react, just as the filmmakers hope, with a certain distress that is almost emotionally scar-inducing. But as is required of any movie with the chutzpah to challenge the conventions of value in the cinema, there must also be a certain amount of relevance in the scenario so that it emerges as something more than just a flashy geek show. Director James Wan's serial killer thriller, about a murderer whose streak of homicides makes his victims the target of their own fate, seems to provide little ground for that to happen; while its details are hardcore and gratuitous, the payoff is lackluster, and nearly all the moments in which you expect the film to pull away the mask and reveal a deeper identity end up feeling like long exercises in overkill. The fact that it is all well made on a technical level makes that assertion all the more difficult to face.

The movie opens quite ominously as two ordinary men, unrelated, wake up and find themselves chained to pipes on opposite walls of a public toilet. The room is both dank and dirty, its sinister atmosphere underscored by a cadaver of an old man lying in between the two captors, apparently the result of a gunshot to the head. The gun still lies in plain view, as does a micro-cassette player. We find out afterward that the latter is actually the film's quintessential plot device, the tool that reveals the conflict to the two main characters and explains both why they are in the predicament as well as how to remove themselves from it. The whole situation is complex enough to warrant hours of verbal discussion, but here is the Cliff Notes description: guy A, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) is required to shoot and kill guy B, Adam (Leigh Whannell) in just a short period of time, otherwise his wife and daughter will be killed at their home as a consequence. The catch: the gun he needs is beyond reaching distance, and the only way he can get his hands on it is if he saws through his own chained limb and crawls over to it.

The back story is even more probing. Recollecting for a brief instance about his present predicament, the doctor comes to realize that he and Adam are the latest victims of the so-called "Jigsaw Killer," a mass murderer who captures his victims and puts them into wild and complicated death scenarios so that they wind up taking their own lives by accident. The media no doubt has thrived at the prospect of covering such a sadistic pattern of deaths (consider the response warranted of an early case in which Jigsaw's victim was required to crawl through piles of barb wire completely naked in order to reach the exit in the room before it locked him in forever), and that prospect seems to unnerve the progress of the case's lead detective David Tapp (Danny Glover), who agonizes for countless hours over archive video footage found at murder sites looking for the slightest clue that could busy the investigation wide open. The murders continue unwarranted and unresolved on that level, naturally, but a recurring theme does begin to take hold: the murderer purposely targets weak-willed individuals with personal problems, in essence to test them so he can see just how far certain people are willing to go in order to survive. Only one of his victims ever accomplished that task, but it's not as if the experience turned her into anything more than an unstable psychological mess, either, so the movie does not depend on her to be a source of exposition.

The screenplay by Leigh Whannel takes a few interesting narrative strides, particularly when it involves the main characters uncovering hidden truths and having personal revelations about each other (I loved the twist that later explains the not-so-strange pairing of the doctor and Adam), but even then, one can't ignore the fact that "Saw" is, at its very basic core, pure horror film with almost snuff-like undertones. As such, it only depends on seriousness to a certain point - afterwards, the film abandons nearly all its strings of logic and reason in order to capitalize on the sensibility that the plot requires lots of blood and gore to fill the screen. In a relatively-short 100 minutes, in fact, very little is sacred; the movie manages to taunt, disturb, amaze and ultimately baffle the audience as much as it does the story's victims. But little of it resonates, and that's because the script is at a loss for drawing inspiration from its characters. They are uninteresting and transparent, and some of them come off as so detached that you aren't sure that you should be rooting for them in the first place. Likewise, narrative specifics concerning crimes are so convoluted that they lack basic plausibility, undermining the film's purpose even further.

On the other hand, the movie is a triumph of its technical values. The film's editing is gripping in the way it evokes the dread and despair of the horrific scenarios in the script; if there is even the slightest suggestion that a character is about to face something terrible or experience great pain, you are almost able to feel the manifestation. Likewise, David A. Armstrong's cinematography is swift and skillful, and it stalks its characters like it is just as nervous about the potential outcome of their predicaments. But don't let the whole snuff vibe alienate you, either; it may look and feel like one of those endeavors catered specifically to those who get off at the sight of bloodshed, but the movie is genuine in its sentiment. These are images that are made to unnerve, not to satisfy.

As a whole, "Saw" does perhaps exactly what it sets out to do - that is, please the crowd of moviegoers who are hyped up about Halloween-related films. Could it have been more? Absolutely. It has the roots of an unsettling and brilliant horror film, but a structure that is simply too over-the-top for its own good. People like being scared, yes, and they like being scared most when it involves a basic touch of reality. Once you begin to stress things to a point that involves too much forethought, however, then those scares eventually become groans of displeasure. This is the kind of scare-fest that gets under your skin but is too busy elsewhere to penetrate your defenses.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Horror (US); 2004; Rated R for strong grisly violence and language; Running Time: 100 Minutes

Leigh Whannell: Adam
Cary Elwes: Dr. Lawrence Gordon
Danny Glover: Detective David Tapp
Ken Leung: Detective Steven Sing
Dina Meyer: Kerry

Produced by Lark Bernini, Peter Block, Mark Burg, Jason Constantine, Daniel J. Heffner, Gregg Hoffman, Oren Koules, Richard H. Prince and Stacey Testro;Directed by James Wan;Written by Leigh Whannel; story by James Wan and Leigh Whannel

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