Saw (2004) review

With a dead body lying between them, two men wake up in the secure lair of a serial killer who’s been nicknamed “Jigsaw”. The men must follow various rules and objectives if they wish to survive and win the deadly game set for them.

If there’s one film that despite my best efforts people refuse to see it’s Saw. Saw is wildly thought of as being at least a bloody movie, if not a 90 minute gore-fest. And with fair reason, after its release Saw was accused of being sadistic and is many times cited as the start of the “torture porn” trend of 2000s. Well this is partially true. While Saw was responsible for opening the door to films like Hostel, it is very much not sadistic or “torture porn”. People and studios liked what they saw (no pun intended) when Saw came out, and much of the positive fan reaction was towards the genius of the death puzzles, not to mention the controversy over the rather brutal titular amputation. Other studios ran with this and turned it more into torture-centric style, focusing on brutality and disgust rather then actual horror. See there’s one major difference between Saw and its “contemporaries” that a good chunk of the critics fail to see. Saw has a fucking plot. In fact, Saw is very plot-centric, pushing it dangerously close to the thriller category. After all the screenwriter studied Seven for inspiration when it came to the actual investigation parts of this movie, but luckily it’s not and has sufficient scares to carry the sometimes hefty storytelling.

Cary Elwes stars as the captured Doctor Gordon and while he definitely has presence on screen, he can be a little wooden and his accent slips a lot. His companion in the room is a far weaker actor, but he’s not bad. The acting of the side characters is adequate, but could have used the hand of a stronger director. The finest acting moments come when the characters are just screaming for their lives, a chilling reminder of the stakes of Jigsaws games.

The costumes and sets in Saw are all gritty and dirty. The traps all have an industrial, twisted steampunk vibe to them which was so popular that Lionsgate changed its logo to reflect it. The room that the two are in feels gross, just in how it looks and how the actors interact with it. Saw is made rather uniquely, with a lot of digital filters and such added to make it feel dark and dirty. It feels very different then any other horror movie pre-2000s and the films that came out at the time. Of course after Saw this kind of tone became more popular, even if Saw wasn’t directly responsible for this trend.
There are plenty of fast edits and time lapses that all add to the chaos on screen and it’s frankly something I haven’t seen very often. This is the very early work of James Wan, who just released The Conjuring and these two movies couldn’t be more night and day, but there are still some similarities. The unique camera angles and the slow silence surrounding the horror in particular are things that you can pick up on, but there’s a noticeably higher level of skill in The Conjuring that shows he’s grown as a director.

The effects in this movie are quite good, when they’re seen. The traps are really where they shine, but other then that it’s mostly just blood. Saw has a reputation of being super gory, and to be fair it has gory concepts, but they’re barely shown on screen. Wan adapts the technique that Toby Hooper used for Texas Chainsaw Massacre and leaves most things to your imagination. Funny how both of those are considered the goriest mainstream films ever made. The gory reputation that Saw has is unfairly given to it by its sequels, which admittedly do amp up the effects. However, Saw is better and more timid then its follow-ups and it can be seen on its own, as long as you don’t let the “gore” deter you.

The writing for Saw… well it’s hard to call it a mess. It’s fast and loose with time and I typically like that, but in this film it seems to be utilized more as a way to confuse the audience until the last minute. It’s not terrible, because at the end everything makes sense, but during that interim it can get annoying. It’s mostly made up for with the fantastic twist ending that does leave your jaw on the floor and also highlights how this film was tailored to make that twist work. Not that you’ll need much thinking to see that, since the movie quickly edits together plenty of footage from over the course of the movie and throws it in your face, so much so that it actually gets annoying.

A good deal of taste comes in to judging how effective that journey is since it’s very much not perfect. If you like dark and horrific movies then you’ll forgive the films clumsiness, but if you’re not a fan, then these misgivings are only going to grind against you more. That may seem like stating the obvious, but when 50% of critics praise the film and 50% hate it, then it becomes pretty clear that personal taste dramatically impacts your perspective of Saw more then your average movie.

Saw is a thrill ride through the elaborate plan of a killer, whose unique nature really makes this film stand out as one of the greats of the horror genre. One does not need to see the body tearing traps of the sequels to see this convoluted, but well planned thriller/horror flick with an ending that I consider one of the best I’ve seen in horror or in film in general. If you can get past the dark concepts and the brutal traps, you might find yourself just as engrossed in the mystery as the detectives and as terrified as the victims.