Despite its reputation, SAW isn’t much of a horror film. In fact, it’s essentially a thriller that masquerades in the trappings of a horror film. There’s very little gore to be found in SAW, and the elaborate traps that the franchise is known for only exist here in their infancy. Instead, SAW focuses its narrative on an intricate storyline that is woven with flashbacks to create a story that is completely compelling from start to finish.
SAW centers around two men (played by Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell) who wake up in a dirty, totally disgusting bathroom. Each one has their leg chained to the wall to limit mobility. Before too long, they realize that they are pawns in a game – a game of life or death, orchestrated by a mysterious serial killer known as Jigsaw. As the two struggle to escape, the film provides flashbacks that provides more insights into the characters. SAW also contains an additional subplot involving two detectives (Danny Glover and Ken Leung) that are working to apprehend Jigsaw.
The film’s villain, Jigsaw, is a very unique character. He doesn’t view himself as a killer or a monster. Instead, he views himself as a savior. He kidnaps people that he believes are wasting their lives – and his “tests” are designed to push his victims into embracing life and living a more full life if they survive. In that respect, there’s room to view Jigsaw as something of an extreme vigilante. His twisted view of morality, combined with his methodical and complicated plotting, makes him stand apart from most horror villains.
It’s easy to tell that SAW is a very low budget film. In comparison to the bathroom, the handful of other settings in the film feel somewhat cheesy. It doesn’t hamper enjoyment, though. In fact, by making every location feel dirty and dingy, there’s a certain sense of realism that the film gains. The world feels lived in – perhaps too lived in. It creates an uneasiness in the pit of the stomach that adds to the ambiance of the film.
The acting in SAW is somewhat of a mixed bag. Danny Glover was particularly disappointing. Whereas the rest of the cast are fairly solid (Cary Elwes is somewhat unconvincing at first, but eases into his role as the film progresses), Glover hams it up the whole time. He’s so eccentric that it’s almost impossible to think of him as a police officer. There’s no depth to his character – which is due, in part, to the film’s writing.
In general, the writing in SAW is fine. The use of flashbacks is very well done, and the twists that occur at the climax are superb. The writing was clearly focused on preserving the twists, and while it makes for a great reaction – the downside is that the film suffers from underdeveloped characters. It’s hard to root for characters that we don’t really know. It’s extra hard in a film like SAW, where the characters find themselves at the mercy of Jigsaw precisely because they’re not good people. With the primary focus of the film on the prisoners of Jigsaw, tertiary characters like the detectives take a backseat.
The SAW franchise carries a reputation for being little more than “torture porn”, but there’s actually very little blood or graphic dismemberment in SAW. For the most part, the film leaves things to the imagination of the viewers. It’s very effective – particularly in the handful of flashbacks that showcase past Jigsaw victims. The scenes are edited to ramp up tension – but they’re not designed for shock value.
Big things have small beginnings, and truly, SAW is no exception. There is unbridled potential in SAW – the creative twists, the disgusting settings, and the mania of Jigsaw. It’s not hard to see how this small horror film could resonate so well with audiences and lead to an almost billion dollar film franchise. SAW is a fun ride with solid storytelling and an outstanding ending that is sure to elicit shouts of surprise.