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  • Noel Vera
    Pshaw Noel Vera Australian filmmaker James Wan s Saw is a mighty blunt instrument, about a serial killer out to make a philosophical point (yes, yet another
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 3, 2004
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      Noel Vera

      Australian filmmaker James Wan's "Saw" is a mighty blunt instrument,
      about a serial killer out to make a philosophical point (yes, yet
      another one of those). This time the killer kidnaps his victims and
      introduces them to situations where they either do some horrible act
      or allow themselves to get killed, learning in the process the error
      of their ways (if said victim dies, that's part of the process).

      It begins with two men chained to pipes in a filthy bathroom--Dr.
      Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), and Adam (Leigh Whannell, who also
      wrote the story and screenplay). Between them is the corpse of a
      poisoned man who shot himself to death; surrounding them (like an
      Easter egg hunt parody, or a particularly knotty RPG (role-playing
      game), or a preview of the next generation in reality-TV shows) are
      various props and implements needed for either of them to make their
      escape, or kill each other, or otherwise fulfill the killer's needs.
      The film gets its title from the hacksaws provided--not tough enough
      to cut through their chains, but tough enough to cut through their
      own legs (haven't we heard this one before--as far back as George
      Miller's "Mad Max," perhaps?).

      Maybe the movie's most ingenious gimmick is that the killer isn't
      one per se; he never wields the fatal instrument but creates
      conditions in which the victim has no choice but to use said
      instrument--on himself, or others (the one responsible, if caught,
      is probably most vulnerable to "conspiracy to aid suicide" or some
      such charge). The device is as old as "Othello," where malignant
      Iago persuades others to do his bidding; there have been stories
      that have taken their cue from Shakespeare, "Saw" presumably being
      the latest, but a movie--particularly one in a genre as tired as the
      serial-killer flick--needs far more than mere gimmickry to retain
      your attention, much less affection.

      Wan and Whannell (sounds like a law firm) commit a plethora of sins
      on their way to overturning (or trying to, anyway) the hoary clich├ęs
      of serial-killer flicks, but their most egregious are the
      flashbacks. Two chained men and a corpse--if the movie confined
      itself to this, and worked its plot around the given constraints the
      way Alfred Hitchcock did in a number of his films
      ("Lifeboat," "Rope" and "Rear Window" come to mind), maybe we would
      have something (plus maybe some truly disgusting toilet humor). But
      there isn't even an attempt at rigor; whenever it pleases the
      filmmakers the movie backtracks to show us what has already happened-
      -ostensibly to clarify a story point, but with the unintended effect
      that the bathroom's claustrophobic atmosphere is weakened, and
      whatever tension built up between the two men frittered away by yet
      another digression.

      To make things worse they stitch on the useless appendage of a
      subplot where Detective David Tapp (Danny Glover) obsessively hunts
      the killer, seeking revenge for the death of his partner. Glover is
      a fine actor (some of his best performances can be found in the TV
      mini-series "Lonesome Dove," and in the Charles Burnett
      masterpiece "To Sleep with Anger"), but this isn't exactly a high-
      water mark for his career: he mutters and sweats and swears, as if
      desperate to keep our attention, while his story adds additional
      threads of implausibility in the already unwieldy plot.

      Then there's Elwes as Dr. Gordon, yet another fine character actor
      who's not above satirizing his impossible prettiness ("The Princess
      Bride," "Robin Hood: Men in Tights"); here he's unrecognizably grimy
      and persuasively low-key for the most part, but that self-
      deprecating sense of humor you see in his comic roles is missing
      (and sorely missed), and when he thinks his family is being
      threatened he's forced to resort to some truly horrifying scenery

      "Saw" has its precedents--the elaborately (and implausibly) arranged
      tableaus of "Se7en" come to mind, as well as the intricate (and
      hardly persuasive) plot twists of "The Usual Suspects" (if the
      filmmakers don't do the obvious and hire Kevin Spacey--star of both
      pictures--to do their movie, it's presumably because his price range
      has since Academy-Awarded its way out of budget's reach), but
      perhaps the most instructive comparison can be made to Kurosawa
      Kyoshi's masterpiece "The Cure." Like "Saw," Kyoshi's film presents
      a killer with a mission; like "Saw" Kyoshi's killer uses indirect
      persuasion--but there the resemblances end. The villain of "Saw" has
      a rather simple-minded point to make--he wants his "ungrateful"
      victims to "value life" (a parody of the kind of life lessons
      promoted by self-help gurus on their way to their first million
      dollars); the villain of "The Cure" doesn't even bother to try
      reduce his philosophy to quick sound bites--you hear tantalizing
      hints and glimpse vague outlines, but the precise features are
      frustratingly out of reach. It's like looking into murky waters and
      sensing something vast and monstrous gliding slowly beneath you.
      Kyoshi reinforces the killer's freakish sense of reality with his
      unsettling silences, his shadowy lighting, his fondness for showing
      terrifying things happening either at the edge of one's field of
      vision or right in front of you--straight on, no music, no
      unnecessary fuss, as direct as a straight razor across an eyeball.
      Ultimately it's Kyoshi's calmness that's so disturbing, the sense
      that he accepts, maybe in some way even approves, of the evil he
      depicts onscreen; you're not sure which is more horrifying--the
      malevolence, or Kyoshi's inscrutable attitude towards that

      In the meantime, we're stuck with this lame excuse for a horror
      picture, and its lame attempts to be groundbreaking, to be
      different. "Saw" ultimately earns its title, but possibly not in the
      way the filmmakers intended: like any serrated blade that has been
      dulled with inexpert use it grates, painfully and irritatingly and
      not a little insultingly, across one's nerves.

      (First published in Businessworld, 11/26/04)

      (Comments? Email me at noelbotevera@...)
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