The Counterpoint

November 06, 2004

A night at the movies

I used to see a lot of movies. At one point I was at the theater once a week, which seems like a lot when I think about how often I go these days. Never the less, I am still quite a fan of movies. I had hoped to do more reviews by this point, but I suppose it's too late for that now.

Last night Krystle and I saw Saw, a grisly horror movie from first-time director James Wan. The premise, as described here byYahoo! Movies, is an intriguing one:

A young man named Adam (LEIGH WHANNELL) wakes to find himself chained to a rusty pipe inside a decrepit subterranean chamber. Chained to the opposite side of the room is another bewildered captive, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (CARY ELWES). Between them is a dead man lying in a pool of blood, holding a .38 in his hand. Neither man knows why he has been abducted; but instructions left on a micro-cassette order Dr. Gordon to kill Adam within eight hours. If he fails to do so, then both men will die, and Dr. Gordon's wife, Alison (MONICA POTTER), and his daughter will be killed. Recalling a recent murder investigation by a police detective named Tapp (DANNY GLOVER), Dr. Gordon realizes he and Adam are the next victims of a psychopathic genius known only as "Jigsaw."
It is important to note, however, that the Jigsaw never actually kills anybody. He instead he creates unique ways to trap the victims into killing themselves, with his focus being on people who he deems immoral. The scenarios are then used as a method of making the victims atone for their sins. As I said, the plot is an interesting one, and in the right hands this movie could've been quite a thriller. But Wan's inexperience leads over-creativity and over-direction, and ultimately, a disappointing film.

My first complaint would be the actual villain, the Jigsaw. There is very little character here, and his existence is questionable; that is, there is no real connection with the story. Sure he is gruesome, but there is never any revelation as to WHY he is gruesome, and there is no background to the character at all (UPDATE: I was just told that they did explain the Jigsaw's motives. I missed this part when I saw the movie, but the reasoning does make sense. It does add a little bit to the character, but not enough to make me change my opinion). He is simply a plot device that allows for the blood and terror that is interjected throughout the movie.

The acting was poor all around. I can forgive Whannell for over-acting; he is simply in over his head here. (Though he was not wasted in the movie, which I will come back to later.) Cary Elwes was especially disappointing. He was thoroughly unconvincing in his role as a man struggling with the idea that his family will be killed if he does not murder Adam, and Danny Glover was wasted as the cop on the trail of the killer.

The two problems that really keep this movie from fulfilling its goal are the direction and the plot/character development. It is painfully obvious even to the unstudied eye (ex: me) that this was Wan's first major picture. He relies too much on fancy camera tricks (especially high-speed stuff) and amplified effects and sounds; it's like somebody told him how to do every trick that would look cool when he is intoxicated and he turned around and threw them all in a movie the next day. It creates this amateur feeling that the viewers just can't escape.

Of course, the over-direction could possibly be overlooked if the development of the plot and characters worked. Think back to your favorite scary movies for a second. I would submit that every one of them does a good (if not great) job of developing the characters, including that of the villains. In the great movies of the genre we understand motives, responsibilities, culpabilities, regrets, etc. We feel for the victims (and sometimes we feel for the killers). That is not the case in Saw. In fact, with each scene I grew more detached from the characters than drawn in to their situation.

As far as the actual fright-factor, I would not rate this very high. There were a couple of "jump" scenes, but they are hampered by their predictability. I still maintain that the viewer will be more scared of what he doesn't see than of what he does see, and Wan shows us just about everything.

Saw is not all bad, however. The highlight of the movie (and it's only redeeming quality) was the humor. These portions of the movie are absolutely carried by Whannell. In the humor scenes the innocence and relative immaturity of the character help him rather than hinder him. He executes here much better than in any dramatic acting he does in the movie.

I would also commend the visuals, which are especially great at relating the mood and feeling of the small cell that the two men are trapped in, as well as the decadence and filth of the city in which it is set.

My final verdict: 1 star, for the comedy. If you are thinking of seeing this, heed my advice: save your money or see something else.


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