You know how some movies have perfect trailers – so imaginatively cut together that you can’t help but have to see the movie when it comes out? And then you see the movie and it doesn’t live up to potential?
Saw is that movie.
The Saw trailer almost made me soil myself, and that was just from watching it in a 2-inch-wide screen at my desk and in broad daylight. Saw’s story is high-concept and tantalizing: A madman is forcing strangers to play sick games as some form of punishment: A wrist-slashing suicide survivor is forced to burrow through a room full of razor wire or else he’ll be entombed in the chamber. A drug addict has to chop a key out of a living person’s stomach to keep her face from exploding. And a doctor (Cary Elwes) finds himself chained in a dingy toilet with a stranger (Leigh Whannell), with a dead body between the two. Mind games ensue, as a series of messages and clues indicate that one will have to kill the other, and perhaps both will be forced to use hacksaws on their own extremities in order to escape. Our killer never kills anyone directly: He simply engineers it so they kill themselves during the game.
Creepy stuff, and the premise is tantalizingly exciting, but first-time director James Wan screws up every opportunity to make Saw into a classic.
The biggest problem is that Saw’s big draw – the sick games – are all backstory, with the exception of the toilet scenario, which plays out in bits and pieces over the course of the movie. We see bits and pieces of them in flashback, but on the whole they’re glossed over. And the lone thrill of the girl fumbling with intestines isn’t nearly matched by the long stretches of build-up where nothing happens.
Worse, Wan adopts a tried-and-tired heavy metal music video editing style (with matching soundtrack, natch), which further removes us from the action. It’s hard to be frightened or even thrilled when the camera is whip-panning around a cell and herky-jerky jump-cutting through a scene. The effect rips you out of any sense of reality and makes you feel like you’re watching a cartoon. Saw’s flashbacks aren’t terrifying, they’re mentally grating. I had more fun listening to the hecklers in the audience.
Some of the film is truly thrilling, but by and large it’s the usual dude-in-a-closet kind of scares, relying on a captured child and wife (Monica Potter, hitting a personal all-time low for acting ability) to manufacture suspense. There’s also an appropriately twisty ending that is quite impossible to see coming, yet which is ultimately an unsatisfying copout that falls apart five minutes after you leave the theater.
Before the screening, writer/co-star Whannell said that some people had compared Saw to Seven. This is true only to the extent that they both have one-word titles beginning with the letter S. Don’t buy the hype. Just watch the trailer again and pretend that you saw a better movie.
Review by Christopher Null © 2004 filmcritic.com