Saw is James Wan's 2004 directorial debut. The thing was an instant hit, and there's lots of good reasons why. But how does it hold up over time? Well friend, you'll just have to read on down to find out. Or . . . you know . . . watch it yourself, but then you'd miss out on all the witty banter we've got to offer. . . . and you know, jokes and stuff. Seriously though, if you haven't seen this thing yet and have any intention to then you should stop here, as spoilers follow.
Jack: Oh buddy. Here we go. Saw. I think it’s safe to say at this point that Saw is a classic horror movie. Maybe it’s not old enough to be a true ‘classic’ yet, but it will be. The effect it had on the industry is undeniable. This is James Wan’s first feature length movie, and squarely set him down the road to directing Furious 7. Or something.
Jake: Pretty undeniable. The wheels this thing set in motion were powerful, most definitely. It really helped pave the way for horror to re-enter the mainstream after a rough, rough patch in the ‘90’s. Now it most certainly wasn’t the only movie to help the genre’s cause, but when this came out in 2004, it got people talking, and the yearly cycle it created from its own success has since been replicated by several series over the past decade (most prominently Paranormal Activity).
Jack: It’s easy to mis-categorize this movie in your mind. I for one, hadn’t seen it since around 2005, and have always put it in that ‘torture porn’ or ‘gore’ genre. It’s kind of iconic for that. But watching through this thing with eyes tainted by films like A Serbian Film, Martyrs, and Inside, it’s downright tame. No gross out gore to speak of, and very few even cringe-worthy scenes. I think this thing came down to novelty in 2004, and enjoying it now is about expectations.
Jake: Wait, have you seen all those films? I don’t care much for gore, and I straight up fuckin’ disdain the torture porn genre, so it’s time for me to level with all our readers. I didn’t get past Saw 3 in this series. Once it got in the race-to-the-bottom-of-Fuckedupville it had with Hostel, I tapped out. Hard. But guess what, we’re reviewing Saw, so it doesn’t even matter. And my aversion to torture films actually gives me the upper hand when people (everyone) talk about Saw and torture. I can call bullshit. It works. And I feel smart.
Jack: Because Saw isn't torture? Not sure I'm following you bud. Are you saying that less information yields a stronger argument? I guess that is the mission statement of this website . . . In any case, the movie opens frenetically. We start from a character named Adam’s perspective. He’s underwater, and has just regained consciousness. Understandably panicking, he struggles to find his way out of what we learn is a bath tub. In the process, a key chain with a small light and a key ends up going right the fuck down the drain. This will matter later. A lot. Infuriatingly. But no need to get infuriated yet, we don’t even know what’s happening!
Jake: The first time you see it, you don’t really even know what it’s about, other than that it’s probably Chekhov’s key-light dongle. Adam gets out of the tub, understandably confused and literally in the dark. The lights flip on and he finds himself in a superfund site of a bathroom, across the room from another man, who we soon learn is a doctor. Lawrence Gordon.
Jack: The main set, that shit-hole of a bathroom, is fantastic. It’s got all the expected stuff of broken glass and shit-smeared walls, but the set is a lot deeper than that. Literally. What I mean is that Wan uses this set unreasonably well. He makes it feel tiny and claustrophobic when the scene calls for it, but then other times makes it the two characters (chained on opposite walls) feel hopelessly far apart. It’s genuinely great cinematography, and shows just why Wan became such a big name. That’s what I meant by literally deep. Wan was playing with the depth. Depth is deep. Wordplay. Bam. Oh, I’m on fire; y’inz are in for a treat with this review!
Jake: Depth. Is deep. Far out, man. It is true though. The flexibility of that bathroom is clutch for this movie. This thing could have very easily gotten a bit tiresome given the amount of time it spends in one setting, but Wan et al really did a good job of making the audience feel what they wanted them to feel by playing with the levers that made things feel claustrophobic to build tension, while at other times using different perspectives to build isolation and hopelessness. It’s fucking commendable. Plus, it allows the audience to explore how terrible the characters are at throwing things to each other. I mean they’re about 20 feet apart and they can’t manage to throw and catch a god damn key? How hard is that? Who throws (probably very important) keys overhand to someone on the other side of a room?
Jack: The early part of the movie is all in the bathroom, and we get to learn a little more about what’s going on. Adam, played by Saw’s writer Leigh Whannell, was the one who woke up in the tub. On the far end of the room is Dr.Gordon, played by Cary Elwes (best known for his recurring role in the hit USA series Psych), an oncologist who is chained to the decidedly less wet end of the room.
Jake: Wait. Best known for a bit part in Psych? “Best known for” does not mean what you think it means… Normally I’d let you live in your weird little fantasy world but no. Fuck no. Let’s talk about actual fantasy. And roles in them. Elwes was that swashbuckling scallywag-heartthrob Westley in The Princess Bride, man! It’s a classic. Kind of like Saw now is/is becoming. You heard it here first, reader, Cary Elwes is a classic making machine. Everything he touches turns to gold. Anyway, back to the movie. In the middle of the bathroom is some poor sap who appears to have blown his brains out. Are the two confused? Boy, howdy.
Jack: Holy shit. Dude, you’re right. Psych is a classic.
Jake: Anyway, we pretty quickly learn that these two are here for a reason. The dead body is holding a cassette player, and both prisoners have a tape on their person. Adam fetches it and plays his tape. A distorted voice tells him that he must find away to escape, or he will rot in the room for eternity. Simple, I guess. Dr. Gordon’s further illuminates the situation, however. His wife and daughter have been kidnapped and will be offed if he doesn’t find a way to kill Adam before 6:00PM on the nose. Stage set.
Jack: One thing about the early scenes between Adam and Lawrence is how unnatural the two feel. I can’t tell if it’s the writing or the acting, but shit, all the early dialog feels forced and written. It’s not the worst writing or directing we’ve seen, mind you, but what’s notable is that it is significantly worse than I remember. So, as Jake said, Lawrence’s challenge is to kill Adam before 6:00, and Adam’s challenge is to . . . not get killed and then escape? The fuck? Hypothetical: If Jigsaw had given Adam no challenge at all, what would he have tried to do? Not fucking die and fucking escape! The fuck is the point of tying it to his appreciation of life or whatever if it’s literally just the exact behavior in which he was going to engage anyway?
Jake: Typically this is the part of the review where I call you a skid and explain the situation like a professional, but here’s the rub. I think Jack’s right. I don’t have an answer. Adam’s “game” as posed by this serial killer is shockingly simple. It would be like giving me a beer and then telling me my game is to drink it. No shit.
Jack: Yeah man. It’s dumb. But they find some clues and start to do some real hard-core sleuthing. Hardy Boys-style. It’s a regular Secret of the Old Mill up in there. Adam is instructed by his tape to “follow your heart” which leads him to the toilet that he’s sitting about a foot from that has a heart painted on it… I remember it being more clever last time I watched it. Eventually, Adam finds a couple of hacksaws in the toilet tank, but not before covering himself in shit from the toilet. The scene does a couple of things: it provides a very minor gross-out, an amuse-bouche if you will; but then it also provides some comic relief. Adam acknowledges that he probably should have checked the tank before diving shoulder-deep into literal shit. Got a chuckle out of me. They both go to town on their chains, and it becomes clear that the saws are not meant for the chains as Adam immediately breaks his saw.
Jake: I feel like we’ve gone too deep at this point without giving more background on the sick fuck that put them in this situation, so let me take a step back. In the midst of their aforementioned unbelievable dialogue sequences, Dr. Gordon fills Adam in by sniffing out who the perpetrator is. We then get a relatively long sequence conducted in flashback. Some time back Gordon was a suspect in some serial killings being carried out by someone referred to as the Jigsaw killer, because he removed a piece of flesh from his victims in the form of a jigsaw piece. In these flashbacks, we see several sadistic scenarios from the point of view of the detectives on his case. It’s here that the movie’s parallels to Se7en become really pronounced. I could go on and on about the similarities, but I’ll just say I found myself kind of wanting to watch Se7en instead...
Jack: You bring up a couple of interesting points there. First, I simply cannot disagree with you about this movie’s parallels to Se7en. They are undeniably there. I also cannot disagree with you that Se7en is the superior film overall. Where I do take issue, though, is that I never drew the parallels to Se7en while watching the movie. Like it makes sense now that you say it, but it wasn’t something that was consciously running through my mind. Which means either that James Wan was partially inspired by Se7en and effectively incorporated that inspiration, or that I’m an idiot who didn’t see an obvious thing in front of me. And I think we’ll let history be the judge of which.
Jake: Yep. We know which, my friend. It’s noteworthy that most of the action in the film happens during these flashback sequences, as the viewer gets an onslaught of gnarly scenarios delivered in short-order. First, we see some guy who was placed in a cage full or razor wire. He was tasked to navigate his way out without cutting himself to the point of bleeding out, before a hatch door closed and imprisoned him. He died. Next, we get a guy with poison in his bloodstream and an antidote in a lockbox. The combination is on the wall, amidst a sea of dummy numbers. The floor is covered in broken glass and he has only a candle to light his way. Oh, and he’s slathered in flammable goo. He dies. Finally, a woman wakes up with the now infamous reverse bear trap on her head, and is instructed that the key is in the stomach of her fellow prisoner, who is sedated but not dead. He dies. She makes it out though. Good for her. She’s a winner. It’s gnarly, and very well done.
Jack: It’s also fleshed out during this sequence that these people are all ‘selected’ for their trials for various reasons. Razor wire guy had attempted suicide, and now he had to prove that he really did want to live. Fire safety man had “burned” people with insurance fraud or something or other. Bear trap girl was a drug addict (the wordplay kinda broke down on that one). Long story short (too late), don’t waste your life - it makes Jigsaw angry. The flashbacks introduce us to the dynamic police duo that are charged with investigating the killings - Detectives Tapp and Sing. While we’re on the subject of Det. Tapp, can we talk for a second about why in the flying fuck they named one character Zep and another character Tapp? When fully half the speaking is garbled Jigsaw voice, it is very difficult to understand the difference. Was it really that crucial of the story that Glover’s character be named Tapp? Fuck.
Jake: It was a little agitating. Anyway, while Gordon and Adam are chained up and sawing the nice new chain rather than the impossibly rusted piping like fucking idiots, Gordon’s family is being held hostage by Zep, the orderly from Gordon’s hospital. Zep? Zep’s the Jigsaw Killer? Fuck. We find out he’s involved when Tapp and the Brad Pitt to his Morgan Freeman, Sing, detective their way to Jigsaw’s hideout and find another prisoner. Jigsaw returns and they have a short standoff. He slits Tapp’s throat with some weird Assassin’s Creed level arm-blade and bolts, with Sing in hot pursuit.
Jack: I would like you to re-read the sentence you just wrote that has Brad Pitt in it. I think I know what you meant, but why did you write it in Rubik’s Cube style? And by that I mean confusingly. Okay, so this scene is a weird combination of infuriating and incredible. On the one hand, there are two things here that break my immersion worse than most other aspects of the movie: specifically the V for Vendetta or Hellboy 2 style wrist-blades that Jigsaw has do not fit the tone of the rest of the movie even at all; and second Sing chases Jigsaw down and shoots him in the back with the shotgun - when he does, Jigsaw falls down. When Jigsaw gets back up, there are no holes in his gross silk pervert robe. Look, I get that he was probably wearing a bulletproof vest, but a shotgun is going to leave some fucking holes scattered in the fucking robe between said gun and said vest. And don’t try to feed me some horseshit about beanbag rounds. Our editor tried that already and I deftly responded that if that were the case, they should have beanbagged Jigsaw’s ass long before he slashed Tapp’s throat. I’m one step ahead of you here people . . . unless I’m not an I’m missing something. If that’s the case let me know, but you know, nicely. Have I ever been rude to you dumbdicks?
Jake: A-Z Horror. Keeping it professional since 2015, y’all.
Jack: On the bright side, after Tapp’s throat gets all slashed, Sing chases Jigsaw through the building, and of course runs into a boobytrap. The trap in question fires roughly 76 shotguns straight down into Sing’s head and ass.
Jack: That scene is great. The effects are awesome. There’s great splatter when the shotguns first go off, and then it lingers for a long time with blood just oozing and pouring out. Great practical effects.
Jake: To go back to the discussion of this not being a gory movie, this is one of the few scenes in the final cut that ratchets it up. With Sing very dead and Tapp mildly inconvenienced by his slit throat (lacerated trachea but no jugular issue, apparently), Zep gets away. We then head back to the bathroom dungeon and check in on our incarcerated heroes, who earlier in the movie figured out that they are being observed via camera behind a two way mirror. They do the logical thing and try to outsmart Jigsaw as he watches on the other end.
Jack: Our two intrepid heroes find a box hidden behind a glow in the dark X painted on the wall because… “X Marks the Spot.” Again, I remember this movie being more clever back in 2005. The box has a few notable items including some cigarettes. The movie shows us through helpful expositional narration that Jigsaw wants Lawrence to kill Adam by giving him a cigarette poisoned with the blood from the dead dude in the middle of the room. What? Isn’t Lawrence a surgeon? Is there a poison in the world that after being introduced to someone’s blood, a tiny amount of that blood can be used to poison a cigarette that someone else would smoke? Would a cigarette dipped in blood even light? Would Adam really smoke a cigarette covered in someone’s blood? I’m pretty sure the answer to all of the above is no.
Jake: That would be correct. And in a turn of events that should shock exactly no one, they play to it. Gordon makes an objectively smart move (assuming we’re just going with the cig thing being possible) and dips one of two cigarettes he has in the blood. He then turns off the lights so Jigsaw can’t see him swap the bloody one out with the other, and he whispers to Adam, telling him what to do. Lights on. Toss Adam cigarette. Adam lights up and immediately acts like he's a cartoon character being shot. Immediately.
Jack: But why would he assume that there’s no audio? If Jigsaw really took the time to rig up the room with two way mirrors, painted hearts on things, and played around with glow-in-the-dark paint wouldn’t he logically have planted a microphone somewhere? Supposedly in the original script the characters used a long piece of pipe that they cut off with their hacksaws to whisper back and forth, but it was cut because that would have been infuriatingly stupid since the characters were chained to the very same piping. Instead they went with something that just slightly disturbs the immersion instead of shattering it altogether. Anyway, their scheme shockingly does not work well. Adam does a real shitty job acting. Real shitty. Like, The Room level bad acting.
Jack: Jigsaw doesn’t buy it, because of course he doesn’t. He electroshocks Adam through his leg shackle. Apparently he took the time to electrify the shackles but didn’t install a microphone.
Jake: Also in that treasure trove of a box Gordon got out of the wall is a cell phone. Thing is, it can only receive calls. And who calls? His hostage wife and daughter. He doesn’t know she’s being told to say it by Zep, but she exclaims he must NOT trust Adam. He does not hesitate to buy it and he and Adam get into it.
Jack: Yeah, that scene does add a decent amount to tension building. After yelling at eachother for awhile, Adam reveals that he’s a photographer who was hired to take pictures of Lawrence’s affair with one of his med students. Or almost affair anyway. Adam shows him all the pictures he took of Lawrence, but there’s a black sheep picture in there, one that Adam didn’t take. It’s of a man, who Lawrence quickly recognizes as Zep, that orderly from his hospital. But it’s too late! The 6:00 deadline has come and gone.
Jake: Yep. Them’s the breaks. Zep calls back and informs Gordon he lost, and his family’s gonna get it. Gordon only hears distress on the other end and assumes the worst. Little does he know that his wife has gotten loose and is out-muscling Zep’s scrawny ass all over the place. Shots are fired, and Tapp rolls in. True detective that guy. Always on the spot. Had it staked out. This sets off a chase scene that ultimately leads to Tapp’s. Apparently Zep could outdue Tapp in a wrestling match for the gun, but not Mrs. Gordon?
Jack: Gordon freaks the geek out when he hears what happens on the other end of the line and starts to cut off his foot with the hacksaw. This scene is pretty great, but also signals the movie springboarding directly off of the rails. The practical effects of the foot-sawing are great. The shot lingers on the sawing, but not actually for all that long. It’s gory, but not super gory. Even though he thinks his family is already dead and he has failed his game, he grabs the gun off of the corpse and tries to shoot Adam with it anyway. Why? Whatever. Maybe he’s just not very good at games. Down goes Adam.
Jake: It wasn’t really gory at all man. We barely see the saw break flesh. Zep might have the most serendipitous sense of timing of any character in the movie so far as he comes into the room almost immediately after the gun goes off. He comes in to kill Gordon because rules, and Adam springs right back up, grabs the toilet top, and bashes his fucking head in. Lots. It’s outstanding.
Jack: It’s a regular Boondock Saints-ing. Then for some reason, Adam instantly forgives Lawrence or whatever because they get all head to head freinds-y while Lawrence tells Adam he has to leave to go get help. Turns out Lawrence shot him non-lethally on purpose (because apparently he’s a marksman despite being in shock from sawing his own foot off) in order to thwart Zep’s arrival, which he totally saw coming despite it being unannounced and entirely coincidental timing-wise. So yeah, he limps off to get help. I bet he get’s far with a sawed off foot and very poorly executed tourniquet.
Jake: Exit Gordon. Adam searches Zep’s person and what does he find? A fuckig tape. Turns out that bitch wasn’t Jigsaw at all, he was just another player in the game they are all involved in. He was tasked with carrying out the murder of Gordon’s family and the two men in the bathroom in order to retrieve an antidote to a poison he was injected with. What we get next is THE iconic scene in this movie, and probably in a generation of movies. That dead body in the middle of the room the whole goddamned time? Not so dead. It gets up, pulls off some makeup, and reveals that Jigsaw is in fact the cancer patient of Gordon’s at the hospital. He does what he does to teach the value of life to those who are ungrateful, because his time is short.
Jack: Holy flying fuck is that scene so great. It certainly loses a little something if you know what’s coming, but I don’t know if I’ve been more surprised by something on screen than when I saw that the first time. It’s incredible. So Adam tries to shoot John with Zep’s gun, but John shocks him again through his shackle. Apparently he’s had the remote in his hand this entire time. John tells Adam that the key to his shackle is on the keychain attached to the light, and just leaves. Adam has a flashback to that key going down the drain. Wait? What? Couple things. First, how could Adam possibly have remembered that? He didn’t see it in the first place because he was too busy drowning or whatever. Second, he just had the key this whole time? So his game was just “you’d better hope this key doesn’t go down the drain.” If it doesn’t you can just instantly walk out, and if it does you’re fucked? That’s it? The fuck kind of game is that?
Jake: A shitty one, man. Adam got dicked all up and down in this one, and it doesn’t make sense. Adam dies in the room, and you are led to believe that Gordon either A) dies from blood loss in the ten feet he is probably able to crawl before dying from blood loss, or B) is caught by Jigsaw and killed. We find out in a later entry to the series that it was A. But back to the matter at hand, which is Adam’s bullshit game. I’d be apoplectic. I’d argue like this guy…
Jack: Right . . . 'like' that guy. We'll all just pretend we don't know why your minor league coaching career ended . . . So there you have it. Basically everyone in the movie is either dead, royally fucked, or dying of terminal brain cancer. I guess the family survived despite Gordon’s inability to stick to schedules, but at the very least I’m sure they’ll be scarred emotionally. Oh yeah, that was the end of the movie. Real uplifting shit. Ratings.
For 1, think of how you would rate Charlie Shortino’s skills at off the cuff, lighthearted banter:
For 10, think of how this baboon would rate close-up magic:
Jack: 6 - This was going to be significantly higher, but then that part about what Adam’s game is got me all frothing at the mouth. So sure, the movie has some plot holes, but it’s still an original story that’s a pretty cool concept. Plus that reveal is bananas.
Jake: 5 - I’m going to go ahead and detract from the story for the faults in the “game,” particularly on Adam’s side of the equation. It was either that or immersion, and by the time that Chekhov’s light key dongle revelation is had, there are only about 15 seconds left in the movie, so it didn’t really draw me out of things. The premise for Saw is fantastic and for the most part, it is really well executed. There are many similarities to Se7en, but not in a bad way.
WORLD-BUILDING / IMMERSION:
Jack: 8 - I’m giving this movie credit for the first time I watched it more than for this most recent time. Don’t get me wrong, this time drew me in, but nothing can match the ‘holy shit’-ness of that first time seeing the reveal without knowing what’s coming. It’s terrific.
Jake: 7 - for the most part, I was enthralled. This movie is filmed exceptionally well, as our comments on the camerawork for the bathroom set detail. My indictment really just comes from some of the line delivery between Adam and Gordon feeling wooden.
Jack: 5 - The movie really isn’t all that scary. As we discussed, the gore is really tame. The overall idea is pretty creepy, and the atmosphere is unsettling, and the few jump scares Wan tosses us are actually pretty effective, though they feel a little lazy.
Jake: 5 - The concept is pretty scary, and most of the execution comes in the form of tense and unsettling, rather than out and out frightening. The flashback scenes that help build the Jigsaw character are truly horrific, and the puppet… Wait, we didn’t even mention Billy! Yeah, he’s scary too.
EFFECTS (OR JUDICIOUS LACK THEREOF):
Jack: 8 - The practical effects in this movie are great. And it never once shows something that the filmmakers couldn’t effectively pull off. That shotgun scene is incredible, the foot-sawing-off is also good, and the throat slashing is competently done as well.
Jake: 8 - Judicious lack thereof, for sure. Like we’ve said, Saw is not a gore-fest. You’re hard pressed to find gore in this movie at all, actually. Therefore, the effects that are included are more impactful, and I find them to be handled pretty well. I’d be interested in watching the original NC-17 version to see if any of the gore that was cut was well handled. I’m inclined to believe no, because I don’t know how they would have squeezed any more out of their $1 million budget than they do in what the mainstream release contained.
Jack: 7 - This is a good movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should. If my only rating were for how much I enjoyed it this most recent time around, the score would be lower, but shit, that first time you see it without knowing what’s going to happen is an experience that comes around all too rarely in the world of watching movies.
Jake: 6.5 - This movie suffers greatly the second time around. That is not an indictment, but for a movie to have a really high score in my book, I need to be able to watch it numerous times and have it become more enjoyable with repeated viewing. This is a modern horror classic, and deservedly so. Skip the other Saw entries if you have to (except for Saw 2), and watch this if you haven’t seen it. It’ll now be spoiled, you idiot, but watch it.