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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Saw (review)

Gnawing Hunger

So these two guys wake up from an unconscious stupor to find themselves chained by the ankle to unbudgeable pipes in a hideously unsanitary industrial bathroom. And one of them has to kill the other one to win his freedom.

I tell ya, if “reality TV” was like this, I’d actually watch it. Let’s put some real bite into Survivor. If some unknown, untalented schmuck wants to be an instant celebrity and take home a million bucks, he should have to gnaw his own foot off and put a bullet in some other fame-whore first.

Also, I would volunteer to be chained in a room with Cary Elwes. I don’t get this thing that so many movie fans seem to get stuck on, that Elwes is a “bad actor.” And I’m not just saying that cuz I have a thing for dread pirates. Look, I’m not saying he’s Olivier or anything, but he’s fine. And I take it as proof that Saw is half a parody of serial-killer movies — not that it’s easy for any serial-killer movie to be serious these days — that Elwes (Ella Enchanted, The Cat’s Meow) goes stark raving bonkers off-the-deep-end awful in the film’s final moments. It’s a joke, people.

I could be wrong.

There’s a lot to recommend Saw in its first few minutes: the setup is puzzle-box-genius fabulous. And there’s a moment — well after the first few minutes — that I can’t even frame for you what it’s about without giving it away, but suffice to say that its audacity and cleverness are just about worth the price of admission alone. It’s all the stuffing that fills out the other, oh, 85 minutes of the film that is a bewilderment. Screenwriter Leigh Whannell (who also stars, as the not-Cary-Elwes guy chained up in the bathroom) has some very cool ideas about A) how to make fun of how outrageously demented movie serial killers have gotten, or B) how to be all “our serial killer is way cleverer and more demented than that dude in Seven, even, and I am such an evil cynical cool but only pretending to be sociopathic GenXer to have invented this stuff,” but then he doesn’t know quite what to do with them. I mean, the whole gnaw-your-own-limb-off approach to dumping your protagonists in danger in the opening moments of the film is pretty daring… but then he — and director James Wan — sort of leave that boldness alone to stew, coming back to revisit it from time to time but never letting it really take flight. If they’d trusted their instincts, the ones that told them, I think, not to wallow in the same-old. same-old, Saw could have been truly shocking and disturbing. Instead, it ends up rather disappointingly conventional when it isn’t actively ludicrous.

Oh yeah, these kinds of movies are supposed to be ludicrous, I suppose. That’s part of the fun, how ridiculous they are. But honestly, for the first half hour of Saw, I thought I was gonna get something like Cube, truly freaky freaky shit that would truly unsettle me. And instead I ended up with a serving of Ray Liotta’s brain served up with a nice chianti. And I was hungry again an hour later.


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Saw (2004)
US/Can release: Oct 29 2004
UK/Ire release: Oct 01 2004

MPAA: rated R for strong grisly violence and language
BBFC: rated 18 (contains strong bloody violence and language)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes
posted in:
black comedy | horror | reviews

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