Saw was one of the most popular films of the "ought" decade and often shows up on "all-time greatest" lists. It's an effective horror film, but it would be a stretch to declare it as among the best of all time. The basic concept is original and interesting, but ideas alone don't make a movie: they have to be tied together into a story, and this puzzle's missing a couple of pieces.
Saw was created by recent film school graduates James Wan and Leigh Whannell, who followed the over-the-top aesthetic of the Australian films they had grown up watching. The ending of Mad Max was borrowed and turned into a major plot point. Wan has also cited Dario Argento as an influence, and an homage shot to Deep Red can be seen about a half-hour in.
Wan and Whannell put together a demo of the concept to get studio backing. The studio clearly felt that the two were on to something, because not only did they approve the project, they allowed Wan to direct it and even gave him a cast full of name talent despite his inexperience. The cast could have really given their rookie director the business, but the fact that they didn't shows their respect for Wan's and Whannell's ideas.
We're not going to bother with a synopsis here. It would be surprising if a reader of this site had not seen any of the at least six movies in this series. We're instead going to go straight to calling the movie "stupid," then we're going to backtrack and explain that, no, we really like it and didn't mean to be so harsh, but we can see the filmmakers' inexperience at work.
Here at dementia13.net, we're pretty lenient about whether or not a movie "makes sense." Illogic can be effective when used with metaphor or symbolism, but that wasn't the goal here. When realism is the goal, you have to do the extra work to make sure that the story makes sense or else risk abusing the audience's suspension of disbelief. We don't mind that the chain of events is so improbable, what bothers us here is the dialogue.
As moviegoers, we often fall into the trap of criticizing the actions of some character who's in a desperate situation. "That's stupid, nobody would do that," we say. Easy to do from the comfort of our chairs, but who are we to say how rational we'd be when confronted by someone wearing our father's face as a mask? Saw, however, invites this kind of criticism because the filmmakers' choice to have the movie largely set with two men in a room means that the storyline can't be advanced through action in a natural way. It has to be more or less narrated, and this results in some weirdly unnatural dialogue.
There's a sort of video game quality to this. Events aren't shown and allowed to speak for themselves, they have to be explained by the characters. It's as though the writers were aware that they had an original idea and that audiences were not going to be able to rely on their knowledge of standard horror clichés, so they wrote dialogue that would guide our expectations. This takes the characters away from being representations of people and turns them into glorified narrators. An example is Lawrence's early observation that "what we need to do is start thinking about why we're here. Whoever brought us here...they must want something from us." Remember that he's still calm and rational at this point and that an immediate threat has not yet been established. Since he's still thinking logically, it seems reasonable to point out that his conclusion really is not logical. It will soon become obvious that a game is being played, but he doesn't know that yet. Waking up chained in a basement should be taken 99 times out of 100 as a sign that "someone wants to kill me," but Dr. Gordon almost seems eager to assume that this is a game.
This stands out like the weird dialogue that David Lynch uses to make the audience focus on what's being said, or the way computer role-playing games change your cursor to a hand when you mouse over hidden loot. It's a cue to the viewer that something significant is happening. The difference here is that Saw overuses this device and uses it as a substitute for a plot that unfolds naturally. It's lazy and artless. Not that the writers lack talent, they just lacked experience. They likely studied film in a program that had little or no focus on writing, so they made the common error of underestimating how much effort good writing requires. Granted, a film that is mainly set in a single confined space is going to rely heavily on dialogue to drive the plot, which makes writing flaws more obvious. The film is fortunately interesting enough that many viewers will not stop to notice these things.
The worst instance is when Detective Tapp debriefs Amanda on her survival experience and pointedly asks, "Are you grateful?" Would any policeman anywhere ask that? We're in Ed Wood territory here: that is one of the biggest howlers I've heard in any movie. It's excellent to introduce the idea that Jigsaw wants to change the way in which people look at their lives, but it's insane to make the interrogating officer, a character unconnected with Jigsaw, into an agent for spreading that message.
It's unusual that Jigsaw is not cast as a complete villain but is shown to have somewhat of a point. Dr. Gordon is a relatively sympathetic character, but he's so self-absorbed that he won't even get up to investigate when his daughter says that there's a man in her bedroom. If baby13 said that, I'd have the gun loaded even before Ms. 13 could get the police on the phone. Parents like that exist, to be sure, but it's obvious that this scenario was written by someone who has no kids.
The herky-jerky editing style is effective, though it hasn't aged well due to the many other films that have copied it in the years since. Those include Saw's own sequels, some of which may have actually made better use of it. The film's grubby setting works well, and is maximized by good use of camera angles and movement.
What does all of this mean? Doubtless there are many people who feel that life is a cruel puzzle imposed on them by a sadistic Jigsaw god. The film nevertheless takes an optimistic point of view: this is the life that you have, so be grateful for it and make the most of it. There's an inherent contradiction in that: Jigsaw is the one preaching this message, but his bucket list consists of building sadistic traps in which people can chop themselves up. He also catches the innocent in his net, as it turns out that Dr. Gordon's supposed offense of infidelity actually never happened. The film's internal logic is incoherent, but it still deserves an "A" for style.
The standards are different for horror films, anyway. A horror film succeeds or fails based on whether it can build suspense, tension and fear. Saw does these things, so all of these other criticisms amount to nitpicking. They nevertheless need to be raised, because reviewers continue to ignore these flaws and hype the film as "clever." There is cleverness here, but a film with such a lack of attention to detail shouldn't be praised for how "smart" it is. Maybe reviewers just find it easier to write about a film if they can promote the "smart" angle, but Saw was never successful for engaging the intellect, it succeeds because it is a punch in the gut.