Caution! Children at Play


So it’s come to this. Our dark thrillers have been reduced to highly stylized snuff and torture affairs, trying to give audiences cinematic pleasure exclusively through the casual presentation of the suffering of others. I’m not terribly surprised, and I’m less troubled by Saw itself than the fact that it didn’t bother me.

Directed and co-written by James Wan and co-written by Leigh Whannell, Saw is a nasty piece of work. Two men wake up in a dingy (but spacious!) bathroom, chained to opposite ends of the room and each able to move only a few feet. In the middle of the room, in a pool of blood, lies a body, a gun, and a tape recorder. The two men find out through audiocassettes that they are the victims of a sadistic little game; Lawrence (Cary Elwes) must find a way to kill Adam (Whannell) by six o’clock, or his wife and daughter will be murdered.

Through some clumsy expository flashbacks — is there any other kind? — the audience learns that this is the latest in a series of elaborate tortures/murders by “Jigsaw.” Lawrence, you see, was once a suspect in the case, so he tells Adam all about them — the guy who had to crawl through razor wire if he wanted to survive, the woman who had to pull a key from the stomach of a living person if she didn’t want her head to explode, etc.

In its tone, its gruesomeness, and overall quality, Saw most closely resembles 2000’s The Cell, in which Jennifer Lopez literally got into the mind of a serial killer. (Unfortunately, she got out.) Neither movie is very good, but their nightmarish scenarios, arresting design, and baroquely gothic depravity make them hard to forget, in the way that getting your skull crushed by a baseball bat hurts for a long time.

Whannell and Wan obviously worship at the altar of David Fincher, so Saw ends up a synthesis of Se7en, The Game, and Panic Room. From Se7en you get the green-gray pall and the inventive, playfully sick, and moralistic killer with too much time on his hands. From The Game, you get the hilariously convoluted mousetraps that, finally, are too incredible to be anything but exasperating. And from Panic Room you’re left with an enclosed space in which only bad things can happen.

But in spite of his darkness and his apparent love of cruelty, Fincher is at heart a humanist, and that’s one reason his best thrillers are terrifying: You bond with the people and their situations. Fincher finds a warm, casual affection between the characters of Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Morgan Freeman in Se7en, and The Game is entirely concerned with rehabilitating Michael Douglas from two decades of self-centered, money-grubbing, selfish roles. These movies invest time and energy into character; John Doe has more life than anybody in Saw.

This movie’s characters operate only out of survival instinct and the needs of the plot, and on the surface the film is bitter with a hatred of humanity and an essential hopelessness. Mere survival requires great sacrifice, in the movie’s view, and this is nowhere more apparent than in Lawrence’s situation. To escape his current predicament, he’ll at the very least need to hack off his foot and kill Adam — not with the promise of great riches, but with the possibility only that his family won’t be killed.

The movie’s primary opportunity for warmth is the relationship of Lawrence and his wife, but they simply bark at one another over their loveless marriage. Lawrence is a doctor who likes a good diagnosis and doesn’t give a shit about his patients, and Adam is a low-life photographer for hire, following cheating husbands. The cop (Danny Glover) chasing Jigsaw is insane or nearly so. In a world so without levity or love, it’s a wonder there’s anybody left who hasn’t committed suicide.

Of course, there’s a grand tradition of nihilism and misanthropy in art, but those aren’t at work here. Saw has nothing to say about the human condition. Se7en and The Game aren’t profound, but they cast a wary eye toward the larger society. Fincher’s films feel like the products of American culture, distorted reflections, while Saw’s twisted contrivances are independent of anything happening in the real world. The movie exists for itself.

Even so, if the movie’s construction were more clever, full, grounded, and streamlined, Saw might be satisfying on its own sick terms. But the film’s mysteries and suspense design are the products of half-baked, manipulative, lazy screenwriting. The audience is spoon-fed suspects but never has enough information to do anything more than guess. Jigsaw is always dressed in a cheesy costume that reminded me of the killers in the Scream movies. Why would anyone wear such a getup? Oh, yeah ... so the audience can’t see who he is. And let’s not even start with Jigsaw’s lair, which seems better suited to a Batman villain than a ruthless killer. Or the elaborate death traps that Jigsaw puts his victims through, which suggest that he’s not only crazy but a world-class engineer and competent doctor, as well.

All this gives Saw a cheap, juvenile quality, and that’s why it doesn’t have the power to disturb and distress. The movie is the work of a retarded intellect, still living in high-school fantasies: Wouldn’t it be cool if ... ?! Saw is the work of children at play.

A Side Conversation: Death and the Monster

There’s only one thing in Saw that’s even remotely interesting, and it might be inspired thievery from another movie. It could also be a sign that the screenwriters were frighteningly apathetic or shockingly sloppy.

In a movie full of unlikely scenarios, there’s one so glaring — and so impossible to explain away — that it begs for further study. (Insert obligatory spoiler alert here.)

Throughout the movie, the elephant in the room is the inert body. You see it, you know it’s there, but no time is wasted by Adam or Lawrence discussing it, and because it’s a narrative given, the audience soon forgets about it. But when it sits up at the end of the movie, you can’t help but wonder: How could they have not seen it breathe?

But let’s alter our assumptions. What if the body wasn’t breathing? In other words, what if the body is actually ... animate but not living?

Now, there’s nothing in the movie suggesting the supernatural, except for the divine intervention (in this case, by the Almighty Scribe) required to ensure that the pawns in these “games” do what Jigsaw has planned for them. And I’m sure there are Saw apologists who can explain how the body could not breathe and still survive for the four hours that Adam and Lawrence are down there.

But I prefer, with my tendency to try to salvage something from shit, to think the body was dead.

Something similar happens in Halloween. When Loomis shoots The Shape multiple times and it falls off a balcony, the audience assumes that Michael Myers is dead. But when it gets up, apparently unharmed, you realize that you’d misjudged the monster; you’d been led to believe it was a mentally ill young man, but it turns out to be a supernatural evil. Is Jigsaw not of our mortal world?

Or can he just hold his breath a really, really long time?

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