Two men wake up in a dirty, disused bathroom, chained by their feet to opposite walls. One is a respected surgeon, Dr Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), the other a young slacker named Adam (Leigh Whannell). Neither man can remember how or why they've ended up here but Dr Gordon knows there is an unusually perverse serial killer loose in the city who, rather than personally murder his victims, prefers to put them in situations where they willingly kill themselves... or their companions. Searching their pockets, both men discover miniature tape recorders which contain a message from their captor. They have also each been provided with a saw. The tool is too flimsy to use on their strong metal chains but it could easily cut through a human leg.
A Hitchcockian suspense thriller with splatter movie trappings, Saw is not for the faint of heart: the scene in which a woman roots around inside a dying man's intestines should prompt a good few walkouts. Those who can stomach the gore and the unrelenting, Se7en-style nastiness will find it one of the most gripping and gruelling films of the year. It creates a powerfully oppressive atmosphere from the very first scene when the lights go on in that seedy, makeshift dungeon where the bulk of the story takes place. While there are subplots and flashbacks involving Monica Potter as Dr Gordon's unhappy wife and Danny Glover and Ken Leung as homicide detectives, there is always that feeling of claustrophobia. First time director James Wan has turned the low budget to his advantage, shooting practically every scene in a cluttered, underlit room. David A Armstrong's cinematography and Julie Berghoff's production design, which are top notch for a film that cost a million dollars to make, add further to the cramped, grimy feel of the film.
Wan has also put together a fine cast, mixing unknowns like Leigh Whannell (who also wrote the screenplay) with recognisable character actors like Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Cary Elwes, Dina Meyer and The Shield's Benito Martinez. The revelation of the movie is Cary Elwes, who has been in a lot of big films, often playing good-looking jerks (Twister, Liar Liar). Given a rich, three-dimensional part in Dr Gordon, he provides one of the best performances I've seen recently. Whannell's script, based on a story he wrote with the director, is strong on characterisation, populating the movie with well-drawn, believable people without having to slow down. In the precision of its writing and the intensity of its direction, Saw recalls such prestigious debuts as Reservoir Dogs and The Usual Suspects.
I did have a couple of reservations. The script cheats in places, for example having a character who turns out not to be the killer behaving sadistically just to fool us. Perhaps the whole whodunnit element isn't really necessary, especially given the killer's identity. It's something we expect from more conventional slasher films like Scream, while the concept of the ingenious killer with a moral point to make has been worn thin by the likes of Se7en and Phone Booth and only reminds us we're watching a movie. Fortunately Saw moves with such ferocious momentum that its flaws are swept aside. This is an exceptional chiller that achieves what Wrong Turn, House Of 1000 Corpses and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake all failed to do: it captures the elusive essence of the horror classics of the seventies.