Time: 102 minutes
Age Rating: Sadistic violence
Leigh Whannell as Adam Stanheight
Cary Elwes as Lawrence Gordon
Danny Glover as David Tapp
Ken Leung as Detective Steven Sing
Monica Potter as Alison Gordon
Tobin Bell as John Kramer
Director: James Wan
Photographer Adam Stanheight (Leigh Whannell) and oncologist Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) regain consciousness while chained to pipes at either end of a filthy bathroom. As the two men realize they’ve been trapped by a sadistic serial killer nicknamed “Jigsaw” and must complete his perverse puzzle to live, flashbacks relate the fates of his previous victims. Meanwhile, Dr. Gordon’s wife (Monica Potter) and young daughter (Makenzie Vega) are forced to watch his torture via closed-circuit video.
Saw was where horror director James Wan started as a filmmaker. The film was a surprise hit back in 2004, with it gaining back over 86 times its own budget, and went on to create a long running series that were huge hits at the box office. I wanted to watch all the Saw movies before the latest film, Spiral: From the Book of Saw, comes out. The first movie isn’t great by any means and has its very visible flaws, however it is still quite good.
The movie is just over 100 minutes long, and it keeps you pretty invested from beginning to end. It’s very different from what you’d expect from a Saw movie based off its reputation, especially from the sequels. The movie doesn’t open with one of the infamous and grotesque Saw traps, instead the first 15 minutes was of the two main characters stuck in a bathroom not sure what’s happening. Indeed that’s the location where most of the movie took place, along with a lot of flashbacks. There’s not really any torture scenes in this movie, Saw is a psychological thriller, focused on mystery and tension and doesn’t focus on jump scares. Despite some of the traps that are in this movie, they are definitely more believable than what’s in the sequels. There are some traps that are pretty gruesome, but most of those moments are shown relatively briefly. The pacing of the movie and the use of the plotlines are actually well planned out, in terms of plotting it succeeds very well. It is a fairly contained movie too, with its fair share of twists and turns including the ending, which is one of the most famous horror movie endings. Having only seen a couple of the Saw sequels, it’s interesting to see how Jigsaw had been changed as a killer. While the character is definitely crazy to set up all these traps and all that, the sequels made it so that he was some kind of vigilante going after mostly bad people. However, Jigsaw’s victims in this movie don’t quite fit that same criteria. Now there are clearly some issues with the movie. There are some moments that are slightly implausible and far-fetched for sure, though I think that’s the case for each of the movies in the series. Saw also very much aims to be Se7en-esque, with the gruesome crime scenes, the serial killer, the detectives in the flashbacks, and occasionally the colour palette. It is pretty far from reaching the level of that movie but does enough to make itself its own thing.
Some of the acting was generally decent but nothing special really. Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell do well in the lead roles, and other actors like Danny Glover, Ken Leung and Michael Emerson provide good support work.
Saw is James Wan’s first film, and this was a really solid debut for him, even if it’s pretty clear that he’s made better movies since then. The movie had pretty low budget at $1.2 million, and considering all the issues and rushes that Wan and Whannell went through making the movie, it’s impressive that the end product was as good as it turned out. It is very rough around the edges because of the lack of time and money that they had for the movie, that ended up enhancing the movie. Again, Saw does borrow a little too much from Se7en’s aesthetics, but it still establishes its own distinct style and feel that is iconic to the series. It’s great on a visual level, really gritty and sickly looking, which fits the tone of the film perfectly. Saw is known as one of the movies known for popularising the torture porn genre but the first movie in the series certainly doesn’t fit into that genre. Yes, it is violent, bloody and gruesome sometime, however it actually used those moments effectively, and don’t feel gratuitous. Even some of the most gruesome traps in this movie was shown relatively quickly. The room that the main characters are stuck in (which was also the only set in the film that had to be built) was simple but ery gritty and effective as it was. The score from Charlie Clouser fits the Saw movies really well and are excellent, from the eerie vibes throughout, to the more intense moments. With that said you do notice some issues, if not on a budget level then a directing level. Some of the frantic editing is pretty familiar and even iconic for the series but it can be very over the top and goofy most of time, especially in the instances when it spins around the room. In fact, some of the editing feels like it is from a music video. There are some moments that do feel a bit amateurish especially with regard to the camerawork, again though that’s to be expected considering the tight schedule Wan and writer Leigh Whannell were under (there were times where Wan wasn’t even able to film the shots that he wanted).
If you like horror movies, definitely check the first Saw movie out. I would never call it one of the best horror movies ever, even from the 2000s, but it is undeniably iconic and influential. Even if you’re worried about it being ‘torture porn’, don’t let that stop you, because it’s definitely not that kind of movie. It does have some problems, again the budgetary issues, some of the amateurish filmmaking and some parts of the writing. Overall though, it’s an effective and well made horror thriller that deserves to be judged on its own merits rather than be lumped in with what at least most of the sequels are.