Friday, February 18, 2005

DVD Review: Saw

I was rather amazed to see Saw in Midtown Video only a few months after its theatrical run. That's highly unusual. Normally it would be a sign of a true stinker of a film. Not in this case. Saw is a stylish, tense and surprising horror/thriller.

The movie depends on surprises, so I'm not going to spoil anything in my review. Nothing discussed should ruin your experience with it.

It was written and made by a pair of Melbourne Australians in Los Angeles. The director, James Wan, doesn't look like he's been out of high school long. The film was made with a microscopic budget that sometimes betrays them. The whole film looks like it was made in different parts of the same set, and a car scene late in the movie is patently fake. On the other hand, the set design, lighting design, and attention to detail is impressive for a small film. The film's central set, a rusted-out, filthy industrial bathroom, especially works.

The same goes for the cast: Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Dina Meyer, Monica Potter, Shawnee Smith (who takes a small role and runs with it) and Tobin Bell are all higher-budget stars. Everyone is superb, with the slight exception of a beefy-looking Elwes, who strains believability in some of the weepy moments. He's off just enough at those moments that you can see him acting. But that doesn't throw off the film.

The movie opens with a man -- Adam (scriptwriter Leigh Whannell) -- coming to in a tub of water, in the afore-mentioned bathroom. He finds himself shackled to a pipe. Then he learns he's not alone. There's another man, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Elwes), shackled to another pipe across the room. Between them lies a body in a growing pool of blood, its head blown open in apparent suicide; one hand holds a gun, the other a small tape recorder. That's the set-up: two men locked in a room. Everything proceeds from here.

This is one of the only two problems I have with the film: its structure. Too much depends on events outside of the central trap. It's a lot like being inside the movie Se7en from the point of view of the victims; the important detective information has to be shoe-horned in, disrupting us. (This movie really is a child of Se7en in a lot of ways.) We are dropped into a dilemma with absolutely no knowledge of the characters, situation or motivations. At first, everything we learn we must be told by one of the characters in flashbacks. We don't know the trustworthiness of the character, so we don't know if we can believe what he tells us. Unfortunately, the director cuts to scenes the character wasn't in, breaking that mood and revealing the cheat. It quickly becomes obvious the movie is just using the trick of breaking up the narrative, and the sense of time, to keep certain information from us until the plot calls for it. It was effective in Memento, less so here. This also reminds me of Cube, which had a very similar construction and theme -- testing humans to destruction under bizarre, extreme physical and psychological circumstances -- but successfully never left its single claustrophobic set until the final moments of the film.

Because of the way we learn of the other characters in the film, it leads to what was, for me, a massive misunderstanding about one of them that, for nearly fifteen minutes, had me totally thinking one character was the bad guy manipulating several other characters, when in fact he was exactly who we were introduced to. Sorry I'm not more specific. It's just that a specific short scene was put in the wrong place, completely putting one character's motivations in the wrong light. One very important scene was ruined for me, because I misunderstood what was happening.

Also, the movie sticks with its structure and originality until late in what seems like the last act, when it collapses into some conventional good guy / bad guy struggles right out of a thousand previous films. After effectively keeping the characters relying on their wits and determination, sticking with its brutal and extreme set-up, I thought we were headed for an undeserved, easy wrap-up. Happily it turns out that this is only prologue to a truly surprising and horrific ending, one that's like something out of Edgar Allen Poe, and that's all I'll say here. You think the movie is about to lose its convictions, then it rallies and shocks you. Really shocks you.

So far, I've made the film sound less than enjoyable, but I guess that the inventiveness of the production design, which makes decrepit a pervading atmosphere, and the nastily Darwinian puzzle at the center of the movie, with its coldly evil options for survival, create such an unrelenting tension in the viewer that the few elements that disrupt that really stand out. The central dilemma is truly horrifying and seemingly inescapable. When the filmmakers stick to it, they have a distrubingly winning movie, one that grips with icy hands. The director has an eye for composition, light and texture. He also has a willingness to try out camera tricks that often pays off in surprising ways. Given more time for shooting (this production was made in an Asian-fast eighteen days) and a bit more money, I think James Wan will make some great movies.

It's grisly, bhe gore level isn't as extreme as what many other films this edgy usually assault you with, but neither is it an easy film to watch. The emphasis is on the thriller and psychological aspects, not on the blood'n'guts.

The lapses I mentioned above keep me from giving my highest recommendation, but this is definitely a must-see for modern horror fans or folks who like to watch characters fight their way out of impossible situations. The director and crew make the most of the limitations of their budget, with few misfires. Some reviewers have been much more harsh, but I always like to favor movies that reach high but don't quite grasp the ring. This is a nail-biter and a cringe inducer. Almost, but not quite, highly recommended.

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