James Wan’s Saw is a love affair with depravity; a vile, nasty little sack of pus that celebrates man’s revolting stain of an existence without hope, redemption, or joy. It is both dark and downbeat–a virtual circus of sickness and death–and as a result, a genuine surprise. Saw is cheap and filthy, like a sad whore on the bad side of town, but quite fun and involving in spite of itself. To our everlasting gain, Cary Elwes and Danny Glover toss away what remained of their dignity, with Elwes giving a performance that will spark a quiet longing in bad movie circles for years to come; he’s a delicious slice of overheated camp. And how can we not bear hug a movie that insists on scaring the living fuck out of screaming children by pointing guns at their heads and measuring their respiration at the same time? Add to that a delightful explosion of ripped flesh, bloody corpses, shit-filled toilets, and charred remains. Having not a kind word or glimmer of sunshine, Saw commands attention; perhaps even a loyal following that will keep it alive for future crowds of midnight revelers whose insatiable contempt for humanity needs constant feeding. Without a point or a real reason to exist, it single-mindedly rubs our faces in a unique realm of disgust.
From the opening image of a man in a tub, itself occupying a bloody, stink-filled room, we are given no relief. As the man (Adam) says, “I went to bed in my shithole apartment and woke up in an actual shithole.” He quickly realizes that he is chained to a pole, and is joined by a fellow sufferer, Lawrence (Elwes). The two men have no idea why they are in this strange location, although they are soon given clues by an unseen enemy. In the center of the room is a mangled corpse, with a pistol in one hand and a cassette player in the other. Each man plays his tape, and we learn that Lawrence must kill Adam by 6:00 pm, or else his wife and daughter will be murdered. He is given only a single bullet, two saws, and a mysterious key. Both stupidly think that the flimsy saws can cut through metal, and are quickly frustrated. What’s the game here? Given the title of the film, we surely know that at some point, someone is going to take off a limb. It’s just a matter of time.
“Saw” also refers to the evil genius behind these strange events, the self-described “Jigsaw Killer,” who, we learn via flashbacks, has been frustrating the authorities for quite some time. His main nemesis has been Detective David Tapp (Glover), a determined cop who became so obsessed after the messy death of his partner that he retreated into madness. He even got a slashed throat for his trouble. Tapp’s tale is a central focus of the back-story, but we also come to understand why the killer has chosen his victims (primarily the good doctor Lawrence). The heinous plan is pretty much the same as Kevin Spacey’s in Se7en, which comes directly from the “evil sinners who need to pay for their sins” school of sinister motivations. Apparently, Mr. Jigsaw has a brain tumor and while rotting in the hospital, he noticed that the people around him didn’t appreciate life to his satisfaction. Naturally, he constructs an elaborate lair and punishes these ingrates with techniques that would have forced even Dr. Mengele to tip his hat. Yeah, there’s a certain “mystery” involved in finding out who and why, but for me, it’s enough that people are being sadistically tortured for my consumption. Leave the psychology out of it and keep stacking the bodies!
We even learn how Adam and Lawrence are connected, but that’s not half as important as watching Lawrence cut off his own foot so that he can grab the gun to kill Adam. Before that, Lawrence explains his “sins” to Adam, which elicits the line, “I don’t care if you covered yourself in peanut butter and had a fifteen-hooker gangbang.” After that, we get more screaming, accusations, tricks and deceptions, but mostly Elwes inhaling scenery like he’s fishing his last meal. And dig that makeup to make him look pale and frail! Clearly the limited budget was needed elsewhere. The clock eventually strikes six o’clock, and we learn even more about the strange voice behind the games, as well as what that body is really doing in the center of the room. Sure, it’s a “twist,” but as twists go, it’s not as insulting as the shit M. Night Shyamalan’s been pulling lately. Even better, it’s likely that the righteous killer will continue to butcher the poor saps of the city until he expires from his illness. What better use of one’s time? Again, these are Se7en-inspired tricks (forcing a guy to crawl through razor wire for his freedom; having a chick fish out a key from a semi-conscious man’s stomach in order to save her own head from a reverse bear-trap contraption), but they focus on the blood and guts that we genuinely want to see. If men must die, make it elaborate; a bullet to the head is far too clichéd and obvious for the modern horror audience, after all.
While I might not always be so inclined to defend the indefensible, I know a winner when I see it. Without pretense or a corny social agenda, Saw has time only to push the buttons that we’re often too ashamed to admit we want pushed in the first place. Kudos to any director who understands the societal need for a long, hot excrement bath from time to time. What better way to recharge our batteries and keep us fresh? Despite being derivative to the point of outright theft, it’s a well-crafted evening of hooey that can’t help but rise above the din. And sure, the times also call for entertainment–even a film that pushes that very word to its limits–that frustrates, sickens, and outrages the moral guardians of our increasingly bizarre culture. If it’s making shitbags like Michael Medved squirm in their seats, let’s give it the sort of salute mindless right-wingers reserve for Old Glory. Consider it your patriotic duty. Consider it Ruthless.