Playing a Game

So, I finally caught up with that era-defining horror film, Saw (2004). I wasn’t expecting much, and I didn’t get too much out of it. It’s relentlessly bleak and grimy, its performances and writing were inconsistent to say the least, and it all amounted to very little pay-off (i.e., nothing but a sequel-baiting cliffhanger). I’ll grant that the filmmakers were crafty and occasionally innovative, effectively using their low budget in a resourcefully Roger Corman-like way. The film was entertaining to follow, and its two leads – Cary Elwes as Dr. Lawrence Gordon and Tobin Bell as Jigsaw – did great work with what they were given.

So I can understand why the film spawned an exponentially expanding franchise. Its characters and premise may be pretty dumb, but they’re also cheap to produce and somewhat rewarding in an icky, debased way. If I had more time on my hands, I could imagine stopping by Saw II. But not with any great excitement. Overall, I’ll admit that Saw was better – morally and cinematically – than the original Friday the 13th, barring Betsy Palmer’s performance, which finds no equal in either film. But my, oh my, this film does have an uplifting bone in its about-to-be-torn-apart body. I love depressing movies, they’re my bread and butter, but Saw‘s atmosphere is oppressively dank. Not a ray of sunshine gets into this movie.

In this and other ways, Saw‘s greatest influence is obviously David Fincher’s Se7en (1995). Let’s see what they have in common: a very limited color palette; unnamed urban areas as their settings; a moralizing, identity-less mass murderer who specializes in nauseating, ironic punishments; and a pair of investigating detectives, one of whom is either Danny Glover or Morgan Freeman. One key difference: at the end of Se7en, Freeman quotes Hemingway in saying that “the world is a fine place and worth fighting for,” then adds that he agrees with the second part. I’m not so sure that the creators of Saw agree with the second part.

Sorry if I’m giving short shrift to one of the most influential horror movies one of the past decade, but it just didn’t do much for me. I didn’t get the sense that the filmmakers were investing in or caring about their characters – so why should I? Dr. Gordon’s progress was gratifying to follow, and I would’ve loved to see him in another movie, but Saw is just too sunk into its ignoble torture chamber roots to be anything like great horror cinema. It’s plainly not “torture porn,” since it doesn’t really relish the quasi-orgasmic moments of torture themselves, but it does get off to its own cleverness. Call me crazy, but I prefer it when writers spend less time playing Rube Goldberg, and more time writing about people.

So… what did I miss? Or am I dead-on? Kindly comment and let me know.

1 Comment

Filed under Cinema

One response to “Playing a Game

  1. Last summer I (coincidentally) watched Se7en and Saw in the same week and realized how similar the two are thematically, but how much more Se7en succeeds. Better characters, a sense of urban decay and grit that you just can’t get from an industrial bathroom… plus, it’s got Morgan Freeman. That said, I still enjoyed Saw and a few of its sequels, if only for how badly the movie makes you squirm. But it’s definitely not lasting entertainment, or even anything that keeps me awake at night.

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