James Wan’s 2004 directorial debut, Saw, has polarized fans of the horror genre. Some have dismissed it as an excessively gory exploitation film, while others have called it a horror masterpiece. In truth, Saw had all the pieces to be a great movie, but they didn’t fit the jigsaw puzzle we were given.
Right from the start, the concept was excellent; many horror movies, both before and after Saw, have used the gimmick of a killer making a game out of his deathtraps. However, this idea actually fits the story here. So instead of rolling my eyes at these deathtraps, I can now take them more seriously. The killer Jigsaw has a fascinating motivation. After almost losing his life, he wants to punish those who don’t appreciate theirs. His victims consist of people who seemingly take their life for granted, including drug addicts and suicidal people. There’s one scene where detectives are questioning the only person who has survived one of these traps. She was a former drug addict, but has managed to quit since the ordeal. She then goes on to say that Jigsaw saved her by putting her in that trap. This scene represents how great Saw could have been. Was this killer actually doing some good? Sadly, this is the only moment where this idea is explored.
Jigsaw has the potential to be one of the most complex horror movie villains out there. However, the film never bothers to explore his character beyond what I just described. Instead, it spends most of its runtime with two uninteresting and disposable victims. And while I found his motivations to be interesting and unique in theory, they end up coming off as hypocritical in the film. He specifically hunts down people who willingly put their lives in danger, yet he doesn’t seem to realize that he’s putting his own life in more danger than anyone else’s. With all of these murders he’s committing, many people, including the police, would be expected to attempt to kill him. What makes this flaw worse is that Jigsaw sometimes appears in person at the scene of his traps. There is even a scene where two detectives find Jigsaw while he’s putting a man through one of his games. They have guns on him and he has no defense, yet he still tries to escape. If he wasn’t so lucky, he would have been shot and killed. If Jigsaw is willing to put his life in this much danger, how can he possibly condemn others for not appreciating theirs?
Apart from the broken ideas, the horror does not work either. Quite often, horror films are either praised for using filming techniques to induce scares rather than on-screen blood and gore. Oddly enough, Saw does the exact opposite. While it is violent, the way the horror scenes are shot actively make them less intense. Whenever we see someone struggling in one of Jigsaw’s traps, for some reason James Wan decided to speed up these scenes to a point where we can barely make out what we’re seeing. If we could just see these people face these traps in real time, we could more easily empathize with their terror and pain. Instead, we feel more distant from the terror and therefore less invested.
There are still a few positives left in the film. The score is excellent and fits the tone pretty well, plus there are a couple of horror scenes that are still pretty effective and unsettling. I applaud the filmmakers for their ambition and creativity, and how the director James Wan has gone on to make better horror films, such as The Conjuring. Saw is a bad movie, but far from worthless. I don’t recommend it, but it has its fans, so maybe you’ll like it more than I did.