The new horror movie Saw feels like the Marquis De Sade’s version of No Exit or a power ballad performed by Nine Inch Nails.
Which is to say it’s a little like Hannibal Lector without good taste.
Saw is about a misunderstood murderer who wants to teach people the value of their lives. Instead of filling a seat on Oprah and discussing the transformative power of love and the Atkinson diet, he decides to abduct people and then subject them to cruel tests to determine how badly they want to live.
This killer believes in the sort of tough love that ends in broken bones, bruises and bloodshed and, oh yeah, an inspirational message about the will to live. For example: In one scene a suicidal fat guy must crawl through a maze of razor wire to help him understand that his weight is a real problem and in another a drug addict is wired with a reverse bear trap that will tear her head in two if she doesn’t cut open a drugged man to find a key embedded in his stomach to teach her the value of not wearing bear traps strapped to her head. This should give you an idea of the deep philosophical issues at play in this bloodbath.
We are supposed to find this killer compelling, but I kept on thinking he’d make a great host for the next season’s Survivor or Fear Factor. I guess it’s okay to make a supermodel eat goat gonads as long as there’s a moral at the end of the story, and Saw uses this deep probing philosophical backdrop to justify its interest in dismemberment.
There is a seamless oppressiveness to Saw that might be misinterpreted as suspense. Director James Wan has a gift for teasing out violent scenes until they begin to fray at the edges, and the film is most effective when it forces us to imagine what cannot truly be shown: A body ripped apart and yet still eerily familiar, living flesh flayed out before our eyes.
Saw’s mood is strangely reminiscent of the Hellraiser franchise, but here it’s the very directorial perspective that is hauntingly sadistic. Wan seems perversely interested in bloodshed, and the movie is an impressive study in style, showing how much information can be displayed in patterns of blood and patches of rust. Watching Wan feed bodies to this machine he’s created is oddly fascinating, like watching a small child tear the wings off of a bug.
Unfortunately, the movie’s engine feeds on bodies that are mostly empty. The characters are broadly drawn and unsympathetic. What begins as an absurd exercise in minimalism – much of the film is shot in a single room – degenerates into an infantile celebration of carnage because we simply don’t take the characters seriously, and neither does Wan. They are just bodies for him to break.
Cary Elwes plays a very bad actor trying to pull off the role of his life as a very bad actor in an awful horror film. Thank god Elwes is so laughably bad: His performance supplies the only comedic release in this otherwise dark, dour film and his over-the-top hysterics releases the audience from the filmmaker’s sadistic charms.
Watching this terrible actor convulse with ersatz emotions – practically writhing on the floor toward the film’s conclusion – helps Saw appear less serious. We have Elwes to thank for bringing a cheerful conclusion to this film, and as the audience erupted in happy laughter I couldn’t help but think of the redemptive power of mediocrity.
Mediocrity puts us into contact with our inner fool; forces us to understand that our lives are not great dramas, but comedies that happen to be etched with violence, despair and tragedy; and helps us make sense of the absurd. When Elwes shakes his fist at a camera and asks the film’s villain what he wants, damn it! – tapping into some earlier bad portrayal of King Lear, no doubt – or the lesser bad actor playing Adam (Leigh Whannell) feigns death badly, most audience members have to cover their mouths to stop from giggling. It is then we are unexpectedly freed from the Wan’s brutal grip and allowed to revel in the film’s silliness.
Suddenly the movie’s careful dissections and forensic porn disappear and we’re left facing these really bad actors struggling with their really bad roles. The grimy gunmetal walls vanish and we see the film for what it is: A harmless fetish object, S&M gear worn at a Halloween costume party, about as scary as lab mice.  
The film self-consciously follows the model of a jigsaw puzzle, with pieces falling into place to keep pace with the dismemberments. Unfortunately, when the puzzle is finally put together it still looks like it’s missing its most interesting pieces.


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