By Saw, Fair Use

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Torture is horrific, and horror can be torturous, but combining the two explicitly is a stroke of genius. Long have they held hands, but following the turn of the millennium horror filmmakers realised they could embrace gore in a way rarely done before. Of course, not every torture-porn horror is a good one. Many are feeble attempts at shocksploitation cinema that feel crass or, worse, underwhelming. Character is still key, no matter the volume of blood on display. There is no substitute for good writing.

Saw, from writer Leigh Whannell and director James Wan, began its life as a short student film. That short was enough to get studio backing and decent funding, and although the feature-length Saw was made for very little in comparison to big blockbusters, it is a decent and well-made movie that packs a bloody punch. The quality of the writing is proven in the star names who came to work on a low-budget curiosity, and the cultural impact the film has had is beyond notable.

The story itself centres on a seemingly-anonymous serial killer who claims to not be a serial killer, known as Jigsaw. Individuals who have committed some moral affront or exhibited corruption of character are selected, seemingly at random beyond being not the most upstanding citizens, and placed into intricate traps referred to as games. The famous tagline—“I want to play a game”—has become both synonymous with the film, but also the idea of entrapping a victim into a no-win situation. This is Catch-22 for the millennial generation: all options are bad options.

Whilst there are some diversions and subplots, the main thrust of the narrative takes place in a single room. Two men wake up chained to pipes with hacksaws beside them and a tape recording telling them only one of them can leave. These two are played by writer Leigh Whannell, giving a solid show as a photographer, and Cary Elwes, trying not to ham it up too much as a surgeon with secrets. Both perform well, but the show is stolen by veteran star Donald Glover as an obsessed police detective refusing to give up on the Jigsaw case. Glover gives a committed and empathetic performance, nailing the convolutions of the character.

Saw spawned many, many sequels; some good, some not so. The tradition they upheld, which began here, is one of twist after twist, knocking the viewer senseless with their power. The twists which unfold as the tension peaks at the finale are relentless and hard-hitting, doing the exact job they should. It is intricately-plotted and captivating, even with the slightly silly premise and occasional overacting.

The supporting cast includes the always-interesting Ken Leung, a highly-strung but captivating Monica Potter, and a brief appearance by the intriguing character actor Tobin Bell. There is a lot of violence, and the gore is at times excessive, but it never feels unnecessary. To tell this story, there will be a lot of blood. It couldn’t happen any other way.

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