Combustible Celluloid
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With: Leigh Whannell, Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Ken Leung, Dina Meyer, Monica Potter
Written by: Leigh Whannell, James Wan
Directed by: James Wan
MPAA Rating: R for strong, grisly violence and language
Running Time: 100
Date: 01/19/2004

Saw (2004)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The Game Is Afoot

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Roger Corman constantly reminded his writers of the vital importance of the first ten minutes of a film. That's when you capture the audience and set the tone for the entire film. Many filmmakers waste time with a useless montage or shots of a cityscape, etc. With the new horror film Saw, we start exactly when the characters do: we suddenly wake up in a bathtub full of water in a dark room with no memory of how we got there. It's literally a birth into a new and uncertain world.

Two other recent films started this way, Cube (1998) and Dark City (1998), and both have become cult classics. Saw may be destined for the same. These first-time filmmakers -- writer/director James Wan and co-writer/actor Leigh Whannell -- unfold their story slowly, giving information only as it's required or unexpected.

Adam (Whannell) climbs out of his bathtub and takes in his surroundings. It's a disgusting industrial bathroom with lots of huge pipes winding all over the walls and ceiling. He has no shoes on and his ankle is locked and chained to one of the pipes. A man lies in a pool of blood in the middle of the floor, a gun in one hand and a tape recorder in the other. A third man, a living, breathing one, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) is chained to the opposite side of the room.

According to clues that eventually emerge, one of the men in the bathroom must kill the other by a certain time or they will both die. Apparently, a psychotic killer likes to test people to see how far they'll go to save their own lives. He locks them in rooms and provides them with near-impossible puzzles.

Without going much further, Danny Glover plays a cop hot on the killer's trail, and Monica Potter co-stars as Dr. Gordon's long-suffering wife.

Saw has a surprising number of tricks up its sleeve. As we leave the little room we learn more about our killer and the other scenarios he's cooked up for his hapless victims (only one has ever escaped). We also learn more about our two prisoners and their sordid secrets. The film stumbles only a little toward the end as it begins to slide into a chase/shootout finale before springing the final, unexpected blow at us.

Whannell and Wan originally meant to shoot Saw themselves as a low-budget horror pic before they found funding for an "A"-list cast, and it's a good thing they waited. It packs more clever ideas into its 100-minute running time than any ten slasher films. Though it can get grisly at times -- Wan has a predilection for disturbingly fast camera movements during tense moments -- it's a constantly surprising and extraordinarily tense Halloween treat.

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