Ken’s Film Reviews: Saw (2004)

“The grandfather of the torture porn sub-genra, which doesn’t feature much torture porn”

The Story (Summary from IMDB.com)

The film begins with photographer Adam Faulkner (Leigh Whannell) waking up in a bathtub filled with water. In his instinctive flailing, his foot catches and removes its plug; as the water drains a glowing blue object can be briefly seen to be washed away with it. After a few cries for help it is revealed that he is not, in fact, alone. Surgeon Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) is on the other side of the same room, and soon finds the switch to turn on the lights.

Both men are inside a grimy, dilapidated industrial bathroom, chained to pipes at opposite corners of the room. Between them, out of their reach, is a body lying in a pool of blood, holding a revolver and a microcassette recorder. Both men discover envelopes in their pockets which contain microtapes; Gordon also holds a bullet and a key that does not unlock their shackles. Adam, with Lawrence’s help, manages to snag the player from the body with which they play their tapes. Both tapes have the same voice, distorted by a pitch modulator. Adam’s tape refers to him as a voyeur and asks, “Are you going to watch yourself die, or do something about it?” Gordon’s tape reveals he must kill Adam before six o’clock (within seven hours as evident by a clock on the wall), or his wife and daughter will die and he will be left in the bathroom, presumably forever to starve to death. “Let the game begin…” the voice concludes. Hacksaws are soon discovered in the toilet tank; neither is sufficiently sharp to cut chain, and Adam accidentally snaps his in frustration. Dr. Gordon realizes that the saws are meant instead for their own ankles, which, if sawed through, would free them from their shackles.

The film then presents flashbacks of their captor’s previous victims: Paul and Mark. Both men failed to escape, and hence had pieces of skin cut from them in the shape of a jigsaw puzzle piece; thus the genesis for referring to him as the “Jigsaw Killer” by the detectives Tapp (Danny Glover), Sing (Ken Leung) and Kerry (Dina Meyer) who investigate the murders. Back in the bathroom, Dr. Gordon comments that they are dealing with a misnomer, as the killer never directly murders his victims nor places them in situations where death is unavoidable. In yet another flashback we are shown the police interrogation (with Dr. Gordon witnessing behind a window) of Jigsaw’s only known survivor, a highly traumatized heroin addict named Amanda Young (Shawnee Smith), who believes that her experience in the test has made her a better person in the end.

After a brief sequence where Adam and Dr. Gordon discover a hidden camera, another flashback sequence shows Gordon’s last moments with his family, and their subsequent abduction. Another flashback shows an attempt by Tapp and Sing illegally breaking and entering into what turns out to be one of Jigsaw’s lairs. The two discover a man tied to a chair with two drills mounted on each side. Before the Detectives can secure Jigsaw’s arrest, he starts the drills. While Tapp subdues Jigsaw, Sing attempts to save Jeff. Though Jigsaw helpfully points out a box that contains the key to release Jeff, the box in question is seemingly endlessly filled with keys; Sing shoots the drills instead, but the gunshots distract Tapp long enough for Jigsaw to escape, who slashes and permanently scars Tapp’s throat in the process. While Tapp recovers from his deep knife wound, Sing pursues Jigsaw and is killed by multiple shotguns set on a tripwire.

His partner’s death has a permanent effect on Tapp, and what was already an unhealthy fascination with the case deepens into an obsession that leads to him being discharged from the police force. Convinced from a piece of evidence from earlier in the film that Dr. Gordon is the Jigsaw killer, Tapp moves into a house across the street from Gordon’s and monitors it with video surveillance.

Back in the bathroom, Gordon (with assistance from Adam) discovers a box holding cigarettes, a lighter and a note suggesting he dip a cigarette in poisoned blood from the body and uses it to kill Adam. Gordon and Adam attempt to fool the camera by faking Adam’s death with the un-poisoned cigarette, but a strong electric shock is sent through Adam’s chain, proving Adam to still be alive. The box also contains a cell phone which cannot make calls, but receives one from his wife Alison (Monica Potter), who tells Gordon that Adam knows more than he is revealing. Adam explains that he had been paid by Detective Tapp to spy on Gordon, and has witnessed him going to a hotel with the intention of cheating on his wife. In fact, Gordon left the hotel before doing anything, but this is between Gordon and the other woman, Carla (one of the med students to which Gordon had been explaining the condition of a cancer patient of his, John Kramer), and no mention is made of possible previous encounters. In the pile of Adam’s photographs which he hid from view of Gordon when found with the hacksaws, the two find a photograph of an orderly at Gordon’s hospital named Zep, seen through Gordon’s window after he left the house. Just as this realization is made, however, the hour of six PM strikes.

Alison manages to free herself and take control of Zep’s handgun, however she is soon overpowered. Shots are fired, which attract the attention of Tapp, who wounds Zep. He is unable to keep him from leaving the house, however, intent on killing Gordon; who is only aware of the sounds of screaming and gunshots. Flung into a state of desperate temporary insanity, he follows his instructions by sawing off his foot and shooting Adam with the revolver held by the body in the middle of the room and the bullet found in his envelope.

Zep arrives, pursued by Tapp, however Zep manages to shoot Tapp fatally. He then enters the bathroom but tells Gordon he’s “too late,” because “it’s the rules.” Adam recovers from his gunshot wound, which was in fact non-fatal, and kills Zep with the toilet tank lid. Gordon crawls away to seek medical attention, promising to return with help.

Adam searches Zep for a key to his chain and instead finds another micro-cassette player. As the climatic theme of the Saw series, “Hello Zep”, begins, the tape informs Adam that Zep was also following instructions under pain of death. As soon as Jigsaw’s familiar voice ceases, the body lying in the center of the bathroom lets out a long breath. As Adam watches, his face frozen in horror, the dead man peels off the latex that gave the appearance of his head wound and then slowly rises to his feet. He is John Kramer (Tobin Bell), a terminal brain cancer patient of Gordon’s; he is seen, briefly, in the same flashback where Zep is (equally briefly) introduced. Jigsaw/John Kramer, whose voice is in fact quite weak, informs Adam that the key to his chain was in the bathtub all along; a quick flashback replays the opening scene of the movie, where an object is seen to disappear down the drain with the water.

Adam reaches for a gun to shoot John, but is stunned with electricity, triggering an extended flashback sequence that runs through the vital shots of the movie in roughly 30 seconds. Just before he flicks off the lights in the bathroom for the last time, John repeats a line he said to Amanda immediately after she escaped: “Most people are so ungrateful to be alive. But not you. Not anymore.” John then shouts: “Game Over!” before slamming the door shut, sealing Adam in the bathroom forever, screaming his despair over the end credits.

My Thoughts

As soon as the film kicks off in the now iconic filthy industrial bathroom, I was blown away by just how good of a job the set design did in crafting this location. Granted, it was quite important this set be rock solid, as roughly seventy percent of the film takes place in it, but man is it beautifully crafted. From the missing tiles on the wall, to all the exposed piping giving it a backroom feel, the oppressive lighting setup and apparent poop smeared on the wall. This is very much a place that you do not want to be, making all the worse that our two main protagonists and by extension us as the viewer are locked inside this location. 

Speaking of our protagonists, of which there are technically four, this film for me felt like a tale of two different stories. I very much enjoyed the sections of the film which focused on Adam and Lawrence. Watching them over the course of an hour and forty minutes go from distrusting each other, to allies, to attempting to kill one another, back to allies was quite riveting. Following Detectives Tapp and Sing however I felt was a bit boring. On one hand, I understand that the film is giving you a slight relief from the tense situation occurring inside the bathroom but I always found myself immediately wanting to go back there. Over the entire course of the film, I never found myself caring for Detectives Tapp and Sing, especially Sing who never receives any real backstory or character development. When Sing has his melon blown into multiple pieces by Jigsaw’s boobytrapped shotguns, I didn’t care all too much, made worse by how long the film focuses on his death, expecting you to be just as devastated as Tapp. 

Hopping back to Adam and Lawrence, Adam’s actor Leigh Whannell overall did a phenomenal job in this film. From the moment he awakens in the bathtub to his final moments shrieking as John Kramer slams the sliding door shut on him declaring “Game Over!”, Whannell genuinely makes you believe he is a trapped animal scratching and clawing for his life. Multiple times throughout the film, Adam is either lying to Lawrence or is attempting to fool Zep watching on the camera, and Whannell does a rock-solid job of showing subtle lying features with his facial expressions. From looking a bit more sweaty to rapidly increasing eye movement, Whannell absolutely crushes it in this film, easily outperforming his co-star in Cary Elwes as Lawrence. 

Cary Elwes as Lawrence was a bit of a late bloomer. For the early and middle portion of this film, I found Elwes’s performance as Lawrence to be a bit lacking in terms of emotion. While I understand Elwes was playing the role of calm and collected in contrast with Adam’s frightened and erratic behavior, Elwes was reminding me of Kristen Stewart in the Twilight films. For quite a while during my initial viewing of this film, I was thinking that Lawrence himself was the killer or a part of the plan due to how unnaturally calm Lawrence’s character is given the situation he finds himself in. His acting performance becomes much better though as the film progresses so if the movie was filmed in chronological order, perhaps it was just Elwes and Whannell warming up to each other over time. 

Throughout the movie, there are instances of foreshadowing which are performed so well, I never noticed them the first go round. From Adam pulling the garbage bag containing saws out of the toilet tank and taking an extra long stare inside the bag, to Zep mentioning to Lawrence that his patient is named John Kramer and that he’s an interesting man. Saw 1 is very much a film which rewards you for multiple viewings, causing second and third watches to be different from the first. Also, let me mention one scene in particular where Adam reaches his hand in a toilet bowl filled with poop to search it for items. While there have been many poop scenes throughout film history, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any as convincing as this! 

Saw though, as I stated earlier, is almost two films in one. For much of the middle portion of the film, we’re tied at the hip with Detectives Tapp and Sing as they review film at their police department and search locations (without a warrant!) for the elusive Jigsaw. The film quite nicely ties the story of these two detectives together with Lawrence, which I thought was quite well done. Bringing Lawrence into the detective thriller portion immediately made me care a bit more, and introduces us to the excellent character of Amanda Young. Amanda is the only known survivor of Jigsaw and seems to be suffering from a case of Stockholm Syndrome. She doesn’t do much in this film, but plays a much pivotal and incredible role in future titles. 

The scene transitions in this film are phenomenal. From what I understand, many of them were practical in that two different sets were placed directly aside each other, and the camera crew had to perfectly move themselves through difficult cut outs in the walls and such to capture these shots. I’m sure it was a royal pain in the ass, but it paid off bigly. Something else I also wanted to quickly touch upon is regarding stairs in this film. More specifically, for some reason, every staircase shown in this film has smoking coming from it. I don’t think there was ever an explanation for this, but it was something I noticed with repeat viewings.

For a film like Saw that is often accredited with birthing the “torture porn” genre, I was immediately struck at the conclusion of my original viewing just how little “torture porn” there actually is. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments like Lawrence sawing off his foot or the unnamed man having his head drilled in, but I would most definitely label Saw as more Detective Thriller than Torture Porn. The film’s main focus is “who is Jigsaw, and why is he carrying out these games?” 

Tobin Bell, who portrayed Jigsaw, doesn’t get much time at all to shine in this film considering he only comes to life during the closing segment. If I had to nitpick about something in this film, it’s that we don’t get much explanation behind Jigsaw or why he does what he does. He comes off as a “evil just to be evil” character in this, which I’m glad they turned around in the sequels. Thankfully they want to make additional films, but had this original been a flop, Jigsaw would have been nowhere near as iconic as he is now. 

This original film also started the series staple of the Saw movies ending on dark and depressing notes. Over the course of this film, I grew to really like Adam as a character, so seeing him locked away to rot was quite disturbing. Lawrence’s fate is left unknown as he had crawled out earlier, which left a small glimmer of hope that Lawrence would eventually return with help and free Adam, but considering Jigsaw almost assuredly found Lawrence later crawling around, I highly doubted so especially considering the vast amount of blood Lawrence had already lost. This is NOT a film you want to watch if in a depressed mental state. 

Pros & Cons

Pros

*Bathroom set is well made

*Leigh Whannell did an awesome job as Adam

*Solid foreshadowing throughout the film

*Multiple viewing are rewarded

*Shawnee Smith gives a convincing portal as Amanda Young

*Scene transitions were well preformed

*Character backstory reveals are well paced

*The connection between the detectives and victims was well written

Cons 

*Jigsaw is portrayed a bit one-dimensionally

*Some detective portions are a bit flat

*Sing’s death means nothing due to no character development

Overall Score

8/10

“I don’t care if you covered yourself in peanut butter and had a 15 hooker gang-bang” – Adam 

Published by Ken Van Conover

As a small two year old boy, my father sat me down one day in front of a PlayStation 1 to keep me occupied while he carried out some chores. It is here where I was first exposed to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, as well as Mortal Kombat Trilogy. Little did my father know that his action that day would lead me to a life-long love of videos games. Here, I plan on writing detailed reviews for any and all games, ranging from the NES and Sega Master System, to the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5. I hope you will join us, and have much enjoyment along the way! Be sure to hit me up on Xbox Live! My username is DarkDemon352

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