Cary Elwes as Dr. Lawrence Gordon
Leigh Whannell as Adam
Danny Glover as Detective David Tapp
Ken Leung as Detective Steven Sing
Makenzie Vega as Diana Gordon
Monica Potter as Alison Gordon
Michael Emerson as Zep Hindle
Shawnee Smith as Amanda
Saw is a taut, well-made thriller that unravels at the end, leaving behind nothing but a mess.
Adam (Leigh Whannell) awakens in a bathtub inside an isolated room, which he shares with Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and a dead body. The two men are chained to pipes – they’re only method of escape is to cut off their own feet.
This twisted scenario has been engineered by “The Jigsaw Killer,” a stranger who has been systematically placing selected individuals in deathtraps throughout the city for some months. Dr. Gordon has been left instructions that he has six hours to somehow kill Adam, or else he and his family will die.
Though the film begins and ends with Adam, it really belongs to Dr. Gordon. He is an intelligent, levelheaded man-of-science who has been tearing himself away from his family by neglect, and is being made to pay for it in an unimaginable manner. As the minutes slip away, so does Gordon’s calm façade, leaving behind the desperate, broken man who does love his family and will do anything to save them. It’s a meaty role, and Elwes bites hard down on it.
The scenes in the bathroom, as the two men struggle to come to grips with their situation and puzzle their way out, are tense and exciting and the film comes alive during them. Occasional flashbacks at the beginning build both the story and Gordon’s character, and add richness and detail to the strange bathroom the movie lives in.
The film has both an interesting premise and a good theme, that people truly do not appreciate the wonder of life (or of things in general) until it is taken away, and asks the question ‘how far would you go to stay alive?’ This is the stuff of great drama and suspense, but it is not as well developed or executed as it could have been.
What’s not seen is often more suspenseful than what is seen, and during the last act the filmmakers go to pains to show the audience everything – Gordon’s kidnapped wife and daughter (Monica Potter and Makenzie Vega) and their attempt to escape, Detective Tapp’s (Danny Glover) obsessive pursuit of the killer, etc. Saw would have been better served by staying in the bathroom for the entire film, and never letting the audience know what was really going on. The real drama of the story comes from Gordon and Adam’s interaction, and everything else is a waste of time. Glover’s sub-plot in particular is pointless and gets progressively worse as it goes along. It eats up valuable screen time that could have been given to Adam, who remains an unknown throughout the film.
As smart and well done as the first two-thirds of the film are, the last third is dumb and contrived, falling into many of the conventions of the suspense-thriller genre. The mechanisms of the plot rest on the apparent omniscience of the killer, who seems to know everything that everyone is going to do, and has planned for it ahead of time. The only time the police are ever ahead of him, he manages to get away through a combination of booby traps and sudden character stupidity. There should be a book on how to write thrillers with a Do and Don’t list, and Don’t number one should be “If the hero has the killer dead-to-rights, shoot him, Don’t talk to him” [which happened twice in the last half] quickly followed by Don’t number two, “Don’t ever go to the killer’s suspected hideout in the middle of the night with no backup.”
The mess of the last act is finally wrapped up with a preposterous ‘twist’ ending that just increases the bad taste left by the previous twenty minutes.
The colossal disappointment of the last act would not be nearly so high if the first two-thirds weren’t so good. This film could easily have become a cult classic.
Still, if you’re looking for suspense and thrills Saw has it in spades, and if you don’t mind a standard, formula ending it is as solid and enjoyable a film as you will find.