There is one glaring, not to mention, annoying faux pas in Leigh Wannell and James Wanns otherwise promising feature film debut, SAW. Its a testament to all that comes before and after that it doesn’t to sink this otherwise effective work. This is a horror flick that has more than a soupcon of gore, but gore is not the point. The real horror arises from the stuff of genuine nightmares, stuff that the story-writing duo examines with intimate, even salacious, detail. That would that its not the certainty of death that is the most horrifying situation for victim or viewer. A famous writer once said, after all, that knowing one is to die focuses the mind wonderfully. No, it is the flicker of hope that makes for real terror, the sure knowledge that no matter how small the chance for success, there is a way through the razor wire, or a out of the reverse bear trap that will shortly rip your head apart, if only you are clever enough, quick enough, or reckless enough to accomplish it.
Meticulously conceived and ingeniously executed games such as those are the modus operandi for the serial killer of the piece, nicknamed Jigsaw by the police whom hes eluded, killing one and driving another (Danny Glover) into madness. The film opens with one of those games, two men, a doctor and a slacker (Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell) locked in a grimy industrial bathroom. Theyre chained by their ankles to pipes on opposite walls, and between them, just out of reach, is a dead man with a gun in one hand and his brains spilled over the floor. Strangers, neither knows how he got there. Neither knows why hes there. Eventually they discover that the game in play is for the doctor (Elwes) to kill the slacker (Whannell, delivering a fine performance while looking like a handsomer version of Ben Affleck), though how that is to be accomplished is yet to be revealed to them or to the audience. Its not giving anything away to mention that in a film named SAW, a hacksaw will make an appearance at some point.
The script by Whannell, based on a story he concocted with Wann, unfolds with the requisite number of twists, though most of the ones here are genuinely surprising. There is a sure sense of what is genuinely scary beyond something that goes bump in the night. This is a psychological excursion into fear that touches on deep-seated insecurities about how much control we believe we exert over our lives as opposed to how that can all evaporate in a moment. The direction by Wann is stylish with clever camera work that deftly skirts the deadly shoals of ostentation.
There is that perfectly dreadful cliché towards the end that I cant explain without giving away way, way too much. Suffice to say that it will elicit groans of the first order. But then SAW redeems itself with a final twist that is so supremely unexpected as to elicit gasps, also of the first order, as it then proceeds to close the curtain with an ending that will haunt you forever