Sunday, March 22, 2009

Andrew Watches: SAW

(Note: If you're interested enough in reading my thoughts on a horror film, you might be interested enough to read my thoughts on the horror genre in general, in a post that was originally intended to preface this very post.)

I should say upfront that it's certainly possible SAW benefited from the low expectations I held for it going into the film. I don't get that sense the way I did when I didn't feel I'd wasted two hours of my life on "Blade III", but I've got to say, I wasn't exactly brimming with hope when I started watching.

I knew going in that the movie's near-omnipotent killer, "Jigsaw", had a philosophy that could potentially set him apart from the standard horror film Jason/Michael Myers "You are a teenager having sex, therefore I will mercilessly slaughter you" antagonist. But since SAW's release I'd also heard it frequently lumped together with "Hostel" as torture porn/gorno. I don't get my kicks out of being grossed out, so that reputation is actually why it took me so long to get around to seeing it, and why I wasn't expecting much beyond a hopefully visually interesting but most likely unpleasant viewing experience.

Given that, I was actually surprised by the filmmakers' restraint, visually-speaking. Sure, there are some icky things in it. The scene where a girl has to dig through a guy's stomach to find a key probably got the highest Eww factor from me, but having said that, it was nowhere near as graphic as it could've been (they could, for instance, have shown her actually digging through the guy's stomach, rather than just holding several blood-slick intenstines.)

There were plenty of elements that could've been grosser and/or more blatant, but it seems to me the filmmakers elected to either leave the most potentially repellent visuals off-screen or present them in a stylized fast-motion blur. I suspect a lot of that's down to making the most of a low budget, but that doesn't automatically make the sequences bad. Actually, the worst bit of the film was likely down to budget issues, but it doesn't involve anything particularly violent or disturbing--it's Danny Glover and the killer in a car chase through a foggy night, and is distracting because of its artificiality. With no visible background, streetlights, star-filled sky, anything but blackness, and just the top half of a car visible, I could practically sense the film crew on the soundstage...

The storytelling was surprisingly dense. Multiple POVs and flashbacks carry the jigsaw puzzle motif over into the narrative itself, allowing the viewer to slowly put together a story from different pieces of the larger whole. The central character is a doctor played by Cary Elwes, an actor I've pretty much always had trouble with--I can never seem to shake the perception that this is Cary Elwes acting and suspend disbelief enough to buy into his characters' reality. Pretty much everything in the film revolves around him, though it's not happening because of him. He, like most of the characters, is a victim: of a troubled marriage; of the police, who suspect he's behind a series of elaborate and deadly games; of a shadowy figure following him around and an even more sinister figure behind it all.

I'll admit I was pleasantly surprised by the killer's final reveal--probably because I wasn't paying as close attention to the movie as I could've been, but still. But for me, the highlight of the film wasn't that reveal, but rather a single line from one of the few characters who survived one of Jigsaw's games: "He helped me."

Like the antagonists in Se7en or Alan Moore and Brian Bolland's The Killing Joke, Jigsaw's not just randomly killing people--he's trying to make a point. He doesn't want his victims to die, he wants them to fight to live, so they can better appreciate the life they've got. Unlike Se7en and 'Joke, in SAW at least one of the characters acknowledges value in having been put in an utterly horrific situation and forced to do awful things. I understood Jigsaw's motivation before I saw the film, but I was surprised to see one of his victims to some degree validate his actions. It's sick and twisted and, to me, wonderful--exactly what I want from a horror film.

The film isn't without its problems, but taken on its own merits, SAW stands head and shoulders above most horror movies. Visually minimalist but well-considered, densely layered storytelling, flawed and unlikeable but still generally understandable's right up there with Hellraiser and Se7en in my book.

Having said that, I don't plan to watch any of the multitude of sequels. I have a hard time imagining them adding anything worthwhile to the first one, and it seems likely to me that, if the first one weren't as horrifically graphic as is could be, with Hollywood being what it is, the follow-ups probably multiplied "disturbing" into the "truly tasteless", possibly even "irredeemably exploitative." Which is what Ebert and Roeper and probably a lot of other critics felt the first one was.

But I enjoyed it.


1 comment:

Scott said...

The second is more clever than compelling, but I heard at one point that it's because it was a spec that was retooled for the franchise.

It has a nice twist, unfortunately it begins to push some of the best parts of the first film into standard franchise territory.

I recommend it on a slow movie day, but it's not worth going out of the way for.