In a year when there was much public grumbling about the parlous state of the Australian feature film industry, Saw offered a success story that took many local pundits completely by surprise.
For a certain sector of the Australian film scene, it was a dream come true: a wildly successful American production masterminded by two bright movie-crazy Melbournians. Its international fame immediately trumped that of the Brisbane-made horror film Undead (2003) by the Spierig brothers.
Saw is, in Hollywood terms, a relatively low-budget horror-thriller-mystery. It mixes a few familiar faces (Cary Elwes, Monica Potter, Danny Glover) into a grim B movie fable. Although widely compared to David Fincher's Seven (1995), particularly for the way it unscrambles a highly theatrical set of clues, it is clear that Saw owes a far greater debt to the gruesomely inventive Grand Guignol of Dario Argento (whom Wan and Whannell have praised for his "creative kills").
I first heard of its young makers, director James Wan and actor-writer Leigh Whannell, when they were media students at RMIT not so long ago. Those who follow the network of Melbourne screenings devoted to low-budget genre exercises will appreciate the in-joke reference in Saw to their earlier effort, Stygian (2000).
Saw has energy to burn, and never lets up for an instant of its lean running-time. It smartly jumps all over the place, and always has another narrative twist up its sleeve. (Enough, indeed, for a quickly drummed-up sequel.)
Content-wise, however, it is fairly vapid, even adolescent in its world-view. The plot begins with two men (Elwes and Whannell) suddenly waking up in a dingy bathroom, shocked to find themselves chained to pipes, and staring at a dead body.
From that point, virtually every scene is based on what could loosely be called ethical conundrums. Would you saw your own foot off to get free of such a trap? Would you try to claw your way through barbed wire? Would you kill your best friend if you knew that, inside his stomach, there was a key that would release you?
This is, to put it mildly, a rather bleak, Hobbesian view of human nature. There is scarcely a moment of tenderness or empathy between anyone in this story, let alone a trace of individual self-respect. The mysterious villain, nicknamed Jigsaw, has decided to reduce his victims to this level of barbarity in response to the way he has been treated by society.
But this is not a philosophical or politically-minded movie. Rather, Wan and Whannell are simply fond of no-way-out plots where agonised characters shout profanities at each other as they contemplate the abyss of their forthcoming deaths. It will be intriguing to see where they can go from here – hopefully something more noble than, say, Jeepers Creepers 3.
© Adrian Martin November 2004