3 stars (out of 4)
Director James Wan's "Saw" is a nasty, nasty piece of business.
And I mean that in the nicest possible way.
Even for those with ironclad stomachs and eccentric movie tastes, Wan's tense, grisly cinematic morsel won't go down easy. But once it hits bottom, "Saw" is oddly satisfying, though the gag reflex never entirely goes away.
Cary Elwes ("The Princess Bride") and Leigh Whannell (who is also the screenwriter) star as Dr. Lawrence Gordon and Adam, two men who wake up chained to pipes at opposite ends of a grungy, abandoned restroom. Between them lies the blood-soaked body with a gun in one hand, a tape recorder in the other.
"You might be in the room you die in," a garbled voice from the recorder tells them. "Watch yourself die, or do something about it."
All the good doctor has to do in order to survive, he's told, is figure out a way to kill Adam by 6 p.m.--a deadline seven and a half hours away. If he fails, his wife and daughter will be shot. (Adam's choice is to be either co-conspirator or prey.) The tools to the men's mutual salvation are hidden in their white tile prison, including a pair of hacksaws (which they, oddly, use to start sawing at the largest links of their chains, instead of the smaller link on their padlocks).
Wan's first cut of "Saw" received the NC-17 rating, but even in this R-rated version it's not difficult to see why the MPAA wanted to give it the movie mark of the beast. Much will made of Wan's capacity for splatter-fetishism and dimly lit sadism, but what may get neglected is his and screenwriter Whannell's surgical plotting, their gifted sleight of hand in defying expectations and planting red herrings.
Lawrence and Adam's captor isn't a serial killer in the conventional sense: He devises Rube Goldberg-like contraptions that give his captives stomach-churning alternatives to kill, be killed or live in varying degrees of maimed.
We've seen "Saw's" brand of serial killer before, most notably in David Fincher's "Seven," which set the bar for all pre-"CSI" gore in popular entertainment. Like "Seven's" John Doe, "Saw's" serial killer acts as a self-appointed moral arbiter. His crime scenes are lessons, ones designed specifically for his individual prey.
Still working within the serial killer model, Wan and Whannell graft "Saw" to the ticking-clock morality play of "Phone Booth" (as well as the "escape this room" mini-genre of the "Cube" movies and numerous disaster films).
Aside from Wan's relentless, foot-on-your-throat pacing and hummingbird-quick editing, "Saw" has none of that light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek humor that modern horror movies employ to offset (i.e.: relieve) audience tension--in effect shackling his viewers to the same nightmare world inhabited by Adam and Lawrence.
The title isn't only a literal reference, but a provocation to audiences to challenge what they see, or at the very least, to pay closer attention. That said, not all of "Saw" makes sense once you step out into the lobby, but the film will undoubtedly get repeat business for those looking to unravel it more fully.
True, dialogue often suffers in service of exposition, the acting can be a bit overwrought and Elwes' American accent isn't watertight (in emotional scenes, the English actor pronounces murder muh-der). These jagged little details don't make "Saw" a clean execution--but for the right audience, the film will leave an impression that won't scar over quickly.
Directed by James Wan; screenplay by Leigh Whannell, based on the story by Wan and Whannell; photographed by David A. Armstrong; edited by Kevin Greutert; production design by Julie Berghoff; music by Charlie Clouser; produced by Mark Burg, Gregg Hoffman and Oren Koules. A Lions Gate Film release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:40. MPAA rating: R (strong grisly violence and language).
Dr. Lawrence Gordon - Cary Elwes
Adam - Leigh Whannell
Det. David Tapp - Danny Glover
Det. Steven Sing - Ken Leung
Alison Gordon - Monica Potter
Zep Hindle - Michael Emerson