*. Nearly fifteen years later (has it really been that long?) I think we can start to put Saw in context.
*. It didn’t come out of nowhere. Director James Wan and writer/star Leigh Whannell were inspired by low-budget thrillers like The Blair Witch Project and Pi, though I don’t think they took anything from those films but the common-sense idea that, as they put it during their commentary, you should “use your budget limitations to your advantage.”
*. Some people thought it borrowed more from Se7en, but aside from the idea of a moralistic psycho teaching his kidnapped victims some kind of lesson I don’t see much of a connection there either. A more obvious source is Cube, with its protagonists waking up inside a trap they have to escape from. Saw, or more properly the success of Saw, launched what I’ve called the Game of Death genre, but Cube came first and its primacy should be acknowledged.
*. That said, I don’t know if Wan or Whannell had seen Cube or were thinking of it specifically. I also don’t know if they’d seen Phone Booth, another precursor it seems to owe a lot to. Instead, like many young filmmakers they appear to have been drawing bits and pieces from just about everywhere. Danny Glover’s rescue fail, for example, recalls the end of Scatman Crothers in The Shining. And I was thrilled to see that the “Billy” puppet on the tricycle was inspired by a scene from Deep Red, a film which is a personal favourite of mine.
*. So Saw‘s success wasn’t a fluke. James Wan would stumble a bit in his immediate follow-ups but as of this writing he has established himself as Mr. Franchise with the Insidious and Conjuring titles to go along with what became the Saw serial. And while Leigh Whannell hasn’t done much since that stands out (aside from writing Insidious, which I didn’t like), the fact is that Saw has a wonderful script. Despite being so confined it’s never talky, and the twists and kinks in the story, the red herrings and concealments, are terrific. It’s a perfect little puzzle script, weaving together a whole spider’s web of clues. I knew going in that there was a surprise ending and was still taken by surprise. I can’t think of another twist I’ve appreciated as much, including Les Diaboliques.
*. There are also some interesting motifs and counterpoints developed. Take the dead man in the room who isn’t dead: from the guy who Amanda has to cut open to Adam pretending to die from the poison cigarette. According to Wan, some people complained that there were no clues as to what was going on. This is crazy. The whole movie is nothing but clues!
*. What makes things even more complicated is that the script is then put into a blender and pasted into a narrative collage. Saw is one of the least linear films ever made, but this aspect of the presentation isn’t talked about as much because it doesn’t stand out on re-viewings, when you already know the story. The first time you see it, however, it’s very easy to get lost and disoriented, despite the fact that it always plays fair.
*. The editing has the same blender feel to it, going completely bonkers at times. Normally I’m not a fan of this style of cutting, but I think it gets used consistently here and would remain a signature of the series. Still, one does have the sense that a lot of it is meant to cover up either a lack of coverage or some bargain-basement effects (like with the car chase at the end).
*. Something else that stayed the same in the series is the decision to give all the trap scenarios what I call aquarium lighting. That is, if you haven’t cleaned the glass on your aquarium for a couple of years. This is also something I’m usually against, but here it at least fits with the idea of being stuck in a hellish nightmare.
*. The character of Jigsaw would later be filled out but the essential point — that he is trying to help his victims — is fully introduced here. Personally, I don’t know how to feel about this. I mean, how much can we credit it? It’s rank casuistry, make no mistake about that. The idea that Jigsaw never actually kills anyone but that he only offers them a choice and then they end up killing themselves is not one I would like to test in court. And yet this is a line that Jigsaw (and his legions of fans) would repeat over the course of the franchise.
*. I wonder about the process that is at work here. Do we just not want to believe that Jigsaw can be all bad? Did Wan and Whannell put any stock in this bullshit? Or were Jigsaw’s motivations, as Roger Ebert put it, merely a “courtesy” tossed in at the end?
*. Coming out when it did it got tagged with the label of torture porn, but undeservedly so. They couldn’t afford to show much gore, and in any event the torture is more psychological than physical. I tend to be pretty sensitive to torture on film but I wasn’t offended by anything here.
*. Part of turning limitations to your advantage is making full use of the energy of youth. Saw isn’t a mature or polished film but it’s all the better for it. Wan and Whannell brought real talent to the table, and if the whole thing is a gimmick, well, it’s a movie about a gimmick killer. Turn your limitations to your advantage. Some things are exactly what they seem.