Leigh Whannell plays a photographer who awakens to find himself chained to a pipe in the grottiest-looking bathroom you’ve ever seen. Also there in a similar predicament is a surgeon played by Cary Elwes. And there are also various items hidden around the joint, including a saw. The saw sure doesn’t look like it could cut through metal, though. It turns out that they are the playthings of a killer known as Jigsaw, and Jigsaw wants to make seriously unpleasant choices in order to free themselves...or die. Danny Glover plays a psychologically tortured and weary detective attempting to nab Jigsaw, who has already ‘murdered’ several people. Monica Potter plays Elwes’ wife, Ken Leung and Dina Meyer are detectives, Michael Emerson plays a creepy suspect, and Shawnee Smith plays a disturbed young woman targeted by Jigsaw.
I really liked the second film in this serious of ‘torture porn’ films (it was simple and effective for what it was trying to be), but by and large after that, they became rather disgraceful cash-grabs, with only “Saw V” earning anything close to an average rating. As for this 2004 original from director James Wan and fellow Aussie writer Leigh Whannell (who would later go on to make the even better “Insidious”), well it’s exactly as I remembered it back in 2004: A good try, but uneven, and I’m sorry, some of the shit from the mostly awful sequels can’t help but taint this a little bit. I don’t begrudge Wan and Whannell one bit for making some money, it’s those corporate hacks at Lionsgate I blame. Truth be told, it’s not my type of horror film anyway, but there’s definite issues with this one.
One thing it definitely has in its favour is that unlike the sequels, this one isn’t quite a horror film, it’s more of a mystery/puzzle box film mixed with police procedural (“Cube” meets “The Usual Suspects” as designed by Pinhead from “Hellraiser” would be the best description). So at least it stands out from the sequels, that is good. It’s a watchable film and a bloody good try, just not a bloody good film, though Wan’s direction is rather nifty at times.
The acting in particular, is wildly inconsistent. Whannell is surprisingly not bad, if a bit iffy on the American accent. But the film (and the entire series, really) overdoses on actors I can’t stand, with Cary Elwes stinking up the joint in his usual beige manner, and the less said about Dina Meyer the better. The best performances by far come from Tobin Bell, Shawnee Smith, and Michael Emerson, who is particularly well-cast for the function he serves. **** SPOILER WARNING **** I grew quickly tired of Bell as the sequels went on and on and the character just became a pompous windbag with nothing beyond the waffle (kinda like Laurence Fishburne in the second “Matrix” film), but here he’s effective. For the purposes of this film, Jigsaw is a fine adversary. **** END SPOILER **** Monica Potter is another thing altogether. She’s particularly lousy in a poorly written role. The biggest offender comes from (at least at the time) a surprising source, Danny Glover. Glover was once a very effective actor (and even impressed more recently in “Dreamgirls”), but here with clearly ill-fitting dentures and a director giving him far too much rope, he has some of his worst ever moments on screen. It’s sad to watch. I get that he’s playing an obsessed cop and is trying to act a little bit ‘off’ to make you suspicious of him, but either Glover is just absolutely awful, or Wan has given him too much freedom. Either way, he gets even worse as the film goes on.
I hate the piss-and-vomit stained look of these films, but at least in this one, the bathroom set is unique. Meanwhile, the flashback structure, whilst not containing compelling material, is a good way of at least not letting things get too monotonous and stagey.
It doesn’t fare well on repeat viewings because the sequels became so awful, convoluted, self-cannibalising and repetitive that it makes you a little less interested in revisiting where it all began, superior to most of those films as it may be. Meanwhile, as much as I liked “Saw II”, and even with this film’s (frankly absurd) ending withstanding, I still believe this film should never have been turned into a series. Look at how thin (yet convoluted) the material got the longer the series went on. Sorry folks, even patriotism can’t get me to be as big of a fan of this film as some seem to be. But I’m glad to see a couple of Aussie make big bucks, and one day they might even make a great film. It’s not like Wan directed any of the sequels himself, after all, but here’s a film I admire the effort in making than I enjoy actually watching.