Rated R for strong grisly violence and language
Before all the sequels, before all the plot twists and "apprentices", before the phrase "torture porn" even existed, there was just... this. A simple indie thriller made by a pair of Australians who came to Hollywood with a sick and twisted idea: a serial killer who forces his victims to mutilate their bodies or kill each other in order to survive, hoping to impart a moral message to them. And there's a reason why it kick-started an entire trend in horror during the last decade. Saw is a horror gem that, while surprisingly understated compared to the films that followed in its wake, remains a masterpiece of suspense. As far as low-budget horror films go, it's tough to beat something like Saw in terms of the passion, energy, and above all, talent put into it. There's a reason why director James Wan went on to become this generation's Sam Raimi, and this is it: his Evil Dead. Rewatching it now after having seen how the whole story plays out in the sequels, I'm still impressed by everything it does right.
The film opens on a filthy public restroom that looks to have been abandoned for quite some time, where two men are chained up by their ankles: Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), a medical doctor, and Adam (Leigh Whannell, who also wrote the film), a photographer. Each has been left with a tape, and upon playing them, they find out that Lawrence must kill Adam before six o'clock, or else his wife and daughter (Monica Potter and Makenzie Vega) will themselves be killed. It's obvious what's happened to them: they're the latest victims of the feared Jigsaw killer, whose M.O. is to lock his victims in traps that require them to either kill others or mutilate themselves in order to survive. As the two of them explore what they can of the bathroom (because those chains are pretty damn restrictive), they learn more about each other and come across various items that provide both clues to their predicament and a possible means of escape -- most notably, a pair of hacksaws that can't cut through their chains, but can certainly cut through the ankles those chains are attached to. Meanwhile, in the outside world and in flashbacks, a detective named David Tapp (Danny Glover) hunts for the Jigsaw killer, and is slowly convinced that Lawrence is the man he's looking for, a hunt that turns into an obsession after Jigsaw kills his partner and severely wounds him.
To say any more would risk inviting spoilers, but it's a very twisted ride. This movie draws less inspiration from splatter flicks and more from psychological thrillers, the most obvious point of comparison being Se7en, a comparison that would only become more apt as the series went on and we learned more about Jigsaw's motivations. Not unlike the killer in that film, Jigsaw seeks to punish his victims for what he sees as their sins and wasted potential. Junkies, wrist-cutters, insurance fraudsters, adulterers, and peeping Toms alike all must face ordeals that this man has cooked up for them, in the hopes of instilling in them a newfound appreciation for their lives and the will to get those lives back on track. While the idea isn't new (again, Se7en), it's handled with a lot more credibility and nuance than one would normally expect from an extremely low-budget horror film like this one. The mystery is more important than the death scenes, and I loved how it played out, especially knowing the story in advance and seeing how all the pieces fall into place. If there's one element of the story that didn't really work, it was the surprise reveal at the end, though not because it didn't make sense; it did, but it didn't really contribute much to my understanding of the story. Still, for a big, sudden twist, it's startling if you haven't seen it before, and at least it doesn't break the story.
Beyond Leigh Whannell's writing, another huge part of why I was able to enjoy this film so much was James Wan's hand behind the camera. In later films, the Saw series became as famous for its rapid-fire, music video editing as for its violence, to the point where MADtv's parody of the films, obviously unable to indulge in the latter, used the former as its visual shorthand. While there is some of that here, it's reserved for only a few scenes in order to drive home the characters' panic. Otherwise, Wan takes his time building tension, never using false jump scares and constantly setting up intense situations where you know there's only one way things can possibly end, but you still want to turn away in dreadful anticipation. He even makes sure to get some good acting out of his cast, something that you don't expect to see in a film of this caliber. Everyone does very good work here, from both its name actors like Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Dina Meyer, and Cary Elwes to the little guys. Even the kid was great! Yeah, they found a little girl in a horror film who could actually act! Sure, Elwes at times overacts towards the end, and both he and Whannell could often slip into their respective English and Australian accents when getting emotional, but even that did little to detract from my enjoyment of the film. One of the standouts was easily Shawnee Smith as Amanda, the drug addict who one day wakes up with a giant metal contraption on her head that promises to rip her jaw open (a scene that's effectively a remake of Wan and Whannell's original short film). Even though she only gets one scene, it was a knockout scene, one that single-handedly got her a callback for the sequels and made a horror character almost as legendary as Tobin Bell's Jigsaw. Speaking of him, despite mostly appearing only as a voice on a tape, he was still a threatening villain, not a physically imposing man but one who gave off the aura that he already knew exactly how he was going to kill you the moment he saw you, and could probably do it too. I very much welcomed Bell and Smith's return in the sequels with vastly expanded roles.
Score: 4 out of 5
It's got some niggling problems, especially with the ending, and a decade of sequels and ripoffs has kind of sapped its impact, but it's still a bloody good time. I might personally rank the second film as the superior entry in the series (though that may just be nostalgia playing tricks on me), but that doesn't lessen the quality of this film one bit. A must-watch for any horror fan.