Let’s Play a Game: Examining Saw

And so to follow up on what I was talking about yesterday, we’ll take a look at the first movie of the Saw series.  I have to confess that when I first heard of Saw, the premise didn’t really impress me.  It sounded like a weak knock off of Seven, so I didn’t go see it in the theater and didn’t really pursue it that much until one day when my ex-wife and I were sitting around the house bored. We saw that it was available on On Demand, and bought it.

I was quit pleasantly surprised.  It was not what I had expected at all – I went in expecting some sort of mix of a revenge tale with torture porn – oh and gore, I mean something basically like what Saw has devolved into, but the movie I saw was nothing like that.  Admittedly, it had its weaknesses (some lousy acting), but the snappy writing and intricate plotting grabbed me by the balls and demanded that I pay attention. I watched it all the way through and loved the hell out of it.

Sunday night we were bored out of our minds again, and so I suggested watching Saw yet again because neither my fiancee nor my friend had seen it.  I told them, “trust me, it’ll surprise you.  It’s not what you think it is.” And I was right – they appreciated it.

It struck me just how effectively the movie just throws you into the dilemma right from the beginning; it really hooks your attention.  For those few who haven’t seen it, the movie starts with two characters chained up in a room, with a dead person in between them. One of the characters is instructed by their mysterious captor to kill the other victim in order to save his family.

Now of course it turns out that this is the work of a serial killer (Jigsaw) who has been doing this to people who have moral issues. Obviously, the killer is a strong conservative in some ways, but he mostly feels that people do not appreciate their lives and is looking to either end those lives or make them appreciate what they have.

What follows is a rollercoaster.  As I said yesterday, I’ve been mentally charting  the plot lines of movies and TV, and this one was just crazy, up and down, whipsawing (heh) the viewer. I also couldn’t help but notice how effectively they built and held the tension by having these intense moments of action, then dropping back down to a more sedate thing before elevating the stakes a bit more, goosing the action up another step.

You know, I supposed it’s technically a horror movie, but like Aliens it’s really a thriller, in that it has a thriller structure.  Compare it to something like Halloween, where the rising and falling action of the plot, while still contributing to the story, does not advance the plot. Some of the scares are just for the purpose of creating scares, like the couple who get murdered.  That really ramps up the tension, but what happens there is not entirely in the service of the story.

So horror seems to ramp up tension and establish fear but it’s not always moving the plot forward entirely. Saw, on the other hand, takes special care so that the twists and turns and bumps in tension accompany a step forward in the plot.  To me, that’s more of a thriller than a horror movie, and explains why I enjoy both horror movies and thrillers and why they almost seem linked in my mind: they just are using the tension bumps for different purposes.

The one downside to Saw is that it’s very plot driven.  The characters aren’t particularly memorable, and there were times when I found myself struggling to connect with some characters emotionally, even though by the end the emotional stakes are pretty high.  I find that the characters haven’t stayed with me in the same way that the characters in Aliens have stayed with me. I suspect part of it is the function of the very streamlined story that they’ve created. If something doesn’t serve the purpose of moving the plot forward, it’s axed.  I mean, we only find out what they remember of being kidnapped as it relates to the plot itself. You only get these glimpses of their life before that room, and those little glimpses only give you a hint at what they were doing.  I mean, it’s  hinted at that Cary Elwes‘ character wasn’t actually cheating on his wife, but it’s never definitively stated.  You don’t find out what he was really doing with that woman because again it’s not really relevant to the plot and I can appreciate the fact that they did that.  It’s very taut.  There’s not a lot of fat on the movie, and it’s impressive.

I’m not going to comment on the sequels.  I’ve only actually seen Saw II and what I heard about Saw III really turned me off and that’s kind of where I stepped away.  I mean I kind of questioned the need for a sequel anyway.  It seemed pretty self-contained, even if he did get away at the end.  I mean he was dying after all, which was the point of what he was doing.

But anyway, overall, I learned a lot about thrillers; gave me some good ideas and some good inspiration for where I’m going next.  Definitely worth a try if you haven’t seen it and enjoy good thrillers.  Although it is a bit gory, I will warn you about that.  It does after all have the whole torture porn thing, though it seemed timid to me compared to what’s come out since then.

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