3 stars


9th November 2004

They say that it doesn't matter how many awards, statuettes and glowing reviews you get; you're not a truly great director until people start aping your style. If this is true, then Saw may well be the crowning achievement of David Fincher's career thus far - not that he had anything to do with it, mind, it's just that James Wan's grisly thriller is unashamedly lightfingered in pinching the best bits of the Finch's back catalogue to create a highly taut, effective horror flick.

Two seemingly innocent individuals awake to find themselves chained to opposite ends of a bathroom that looks suspiciously like one you'd find in Silent Hill. The rules are simple - the dashing Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes) has until 6pm to kill his roommate Adam (Leigh Whannell) or his wife and child will be murdered. The pair suspect they are the latest victims of the Jigsaw killer, a man who inflicts his twisted punishment on others by setting up faintly ironic torture scenarios and letting the poor unfortunates kill themselves trying to escape (it's like Dr. Gordon says, "he's not technically a murderer"). With tension rising high and cabin fever sinking in, the shackled couple have a few short hours to figure out a plan - either that, or play the game and help Mr. Psycho get his rocks off.

Right from the outset, Saw's budget limitations are apparent. While the premise itself - two guys trapped in a room - doesn't exactly require a Titanic-esque amount of credit, it's painfully obvious that cracks have been papered over and the more exciting scenes have been slimmed down to anorexic levels. Even though the film is peppered with flashbacks and scenes outside of the bathroom, there's not a single external location in the entire picture - as you can imagine, this makes shooting a car chase rather difficult, and it's rendered ridiculous by the shaky editing and thrash metal trying to distract you. However, the filth and dank is quite welcome, with a lack of sunlight lending Saw a definite seedy feel.

When Danny Glover is the most recognisable name on your movie poster, you just know that the money didn't go on casting. The central heavyweight partnership of the two prisoners don't exactly set the screen alight with their acting ability, either - Elwes gives a cheek-gnawingly awful performance as the smug adulterer doctor, and Whannell is so bland, the director might have got a better performance by chaining a cardboard cut-out to the pipes. Monica Potter is given a thankless role as Dr. Gordon's wife, and the terrible dialogue in the scenes with her husband and child is clumsily delivered and painful on the ear - there's no escaping the fact that a smart script isn't one of Saw's strong points.

What it does do well, superbly well, is set up some devilishly nasty set pieces that rarely fail to get the pulse racing. One scene with Adam navigating his way through his pitch-black apartment using solely the flash of his camera is expertly executed, and Jigsaw's past conquests are all suitably gruesome (and all the more entertaining for it). However, the aforementioned Mr. Fincher could probably claim some sort of directorial credit if he was so inclined, such is Wan's blatant thievery. It's up there in black and white for all to see; the diabolical and perverted murders of Se7en, the tightly-shot claustrophobia of Panic Room - even the creepy doll from The Game is pinched wholesale, although for the record, giving your spooky little puppet a Max Wall haircut and having him ride into the room on a tricycle isn't particularly scary.

Saw is a cheap, nasty little movie, a straight-to-video thriller that got lost on its way to Blockbuster, but it's so entertaining you'll forgive a few of the budgetary stretches, gaping plot holes and desperately bad performances. Even the now customary twist ending isn't half as annoying as it could have been. In fact, if you can stomach the gore on top of Cary Elwes's piss-poor acting, then you should have no problem enjoying Saw in its entirety. Quite what David Fincher will make of it is another matter.

More:  Saw  Cary Elwes
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