Saturday, September 30, 2017

Dont' Watch This Alone!: SAW (2004)

Welcome to another installment of DON'T WATCH THIS ALONE!, where we review the best, worst, and everything in between in the world of horror. This week, we begin to prepare for the October 28th release of Jigsaw, the eighth installment in the Saw franchise, by looking back at each of the seven films in the original serial, beginning with the sleeper hit that started it all: SAW.

A little housekeeping before we begin, Occasional Reader. This article represents the first in a five-part series. We'll spend the first four parts talking about the seven previous Saw movies, and cap it off with a discussion of how Jigsaw turned out. I'm optimistic, but this has been an unpredictable year in terms of movie quality.

Also, the Saw movies are crazy detailed, and since we're going to end up talking about the whole serial, I'm probably gonna have to spoil some of it. It's either that, or these reviews are going to get unbearably vague before the end. I'll do my best to keep the big stuff a surprise, but just in case, assume that THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.

Now that's out of the way, let's begin.

A guy wakes up in a bathtub.

It sounds like the beginning of a joke, right? Or maybe the first part of the setup to some Hangover-esque dude-bro comedy. Instead, it's the opening sequence to one of the best horror movies released this century, which is itself the opening chapter in a seven-part serial of tightly interconnected films. What begins here won't be resolved until the credits roll on the seventh film, and along the way we are going to be treated to a far more carefully crafted long-game narrative than modern moviegoers are used to. If I have any complaints about the Saw series as a whole, it's that the serial tries to be all things to all horror fans. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

A guy wakes up in a bathtub, and soon realizes two things: first, he's trapped, chained to a pipe by the ankle. Second, he isn't alone. There's another man in the room with him, in much the same situation. Who these men are, why they are in their situation, and many other questions, some obvious, some not, form the main plot which will carry us through the next two hours. The unraveling of this mystery, the two men's efforts to free themselves from the Escape-Room-from-Hell in which they find themselves, and a subplot involving two police detectives on the trail of the mysterious "Jigsaw Killer" will lay the groundwork for the Saw serial as a whole.

There's a lot to love about this movie, starting with its being a horror movie second. Saw is a mystery first. There's very little gore in this first chapter, apart from one unfortunate who died on a tangle of razor-wire; most of the kills happen off-screen, and the film smartly relies on its building an atmosphere of cloying despair and desperation to keep the audience engaged. This atmospheric quality is done beautifully, with the grimy, filthy bathroom our two main characters spend the story in serving as the centerpiece. It is a disgusting work of art.

These two main characters, played by Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell, manage to carry the story despite their inability to do much. I can't argue that Elwes does most of the work in that regard; his is easily the superior skill in this particular room. But Whannell does his bit well. If the two men are a team, then Whannell is the sidekick, and he owns his role unashamedly. He starts off a sympathetic innocent victim, morphs into a cocky smart-aleck, morphs again into kind of a sleazy unscrupulous dirtball, and then he's back to a sympathetic character by the end. After everything I learn about him over the course of the movie, I can't not like the guy.

But Cary Elwes. For his performance, I can only say this: the day before I watched Saw for the first time, Elwes would always be Westley, the farm boy hero of 1987's The Princess Bride. The day after, I didn't want to watch The Princess Bride for a while. I'll never look at Westley the same way again.

Elwes' character goes through his own metamorphosis, starting as a smart, confident leader who has no doubt he's going to figure a way out of the situation he's in. Even when he first learns, through one of the recorded messages that are a hallmark of the series, that his wife and daughter are in danger, his confidence doesn't really falter. And then he finds a photo of them, bound and gagged, and his confidence begins to crumble. That deterioration continues until he finally goes off the rails completely during the film's climax, and that's the point when the film is truly horrifying.

You may have heard that Saw is "that movie where the guy cuts off his foot." That's true, but that's not what makes that whole sequence so effective. First is the screaming. In the moments leading up to Cary Elwes' character doing the deed, when all the stress he's hits critical mass, he begins to scream, and he just sounds like he's losing his mind. Then he starts to cut, and as I watched that scene again tonight, it occurred to me: he's been using that same saw for most of the movie, trying to cut through the chain he's bound in. Meaning that saw blade is dull. And now I appreciate just how far his character has gone off the edge in that moment to do what he does.

But enough about those two. The first Saw chapter not only sets the formula for what to expect from the rest of the series, it also acts as a kind of tutorial for how to approach the later stories. This is the only installment where the mystery takes center stage. With each successive installment, it goes a little further into the background, and the story will spend less energy pointing out clues to you, so I can forgive naysayers who write off the sequels as mindless torture porn. Also, this film, like all the Saw chapters, relies heavily on flashbacks to tell the story. Flashbacks make up the majority of the film's runtime. The entire subplot of Detectives Tapp and Sing investigating the Jigsaw Killer case is a flashback, for example. I guess I can understand why people are put off by this -- flashbacks screw with the timeline of a narrative and can be confusing if you aren't paying attention -- but I can't really sympathize. If you do pay attention, the parts that are flashbacks are really easy to spot. Again, this is the movie that trains you for what to expect later, so sit up straight and watch closely. The training wheels are going to come off very soon.

Jigsaw himself, played by Tobin Bell, is possibly a more compelling villain than the horror genre deserves. The police in the film classify him as a serial killer, since a good many people have died in Jigsaw's "games", even by the opening of this first movie. We'll see a number of them over the course of each movie, and they usually turn out badly. But here's the thing: every one of Jigsaw's games is winnable. By that I mean, it's entirely possible for the victim to pass the test of the moment and gain their freedom, though likely somewhat worse for wear. This is an important point to remember as we go through the later installments.

The reason for this is that Jigsaw wants his victims to appreciate their lives. He has very personal reasons for doing so, and no one appreciates life like someone who has come close to death. Yes, this is out of character for the average soulless, blood-soaked American horror movie baddie, and that's the point. This is why the games that appear in later movies, over-the-top though they may be, are still significant. We'll get into why that is when it becomes relevant.

I apologize for the gushing, but I do love this movie, and this series, so. I love almost any story that gives up more clues and details on repeated viewings, and every time I watch the Saw series, I'm impressed by its narrative cohesion all over again. That's why I've been making so many references to the sequels in this first article; the chapters are so tightly knit that you almost can't talk about one without talking about others. This first installment does cut a few corners, likely due to its being a small-time project. I noticed a couple of moments in the film where the dialogue was pretty obviously dubbed over a scene later, for example. But this is still a great story, and a good, if minimalist, taste of things to come.

Saw is rated R for for strong grisly violence and language.

Robert's Score: 9 / 10

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