I found Saw reasonably entertaining and diverting while never forgetting its heavy debt to the films of David Fincher. Even setting aside the obvious influence of Fincher’s big-hit thriller Seven — which also featured a sicko mastermind passing harsh judgment on his hapless prey — Saw carries echoes of Fincher’s subsequent movies Fight Club, in which Brad Pitt held a gun on a cringing convenience-store clerk and told him he’d better start working towards his true calling as a veterinarian or else Pitt would find him and kill him, and especially The Game, wherein Michael Douglas suffered an endless night of torments intended, it turns out, to shock him into a fuller awareness of life. Saw‘s mysterioso villain works the same side of the street: He picks on people who don’t appreciate their lives enough. One victim who escaped (hauntingly played by Shawnee Smith of The Stand and 1988’s The Blob) goes so far as to say, “He helped me.”

In the original The Grudge, we were reminded that the dead hate the living. In Saw, it’s the alive-but-only-existing who earn wrath. Two seemingly unconnected men — a smug surgeon (Cary Elwes) with a crappy bedside manner and a grungy young photographer (Leigh Whannell, who also wrote the script) — wake up in a disgusting bathroom, their ankles chained to thick pipes. They’ve been deposited there by the distant madman, who communicates his demands via tape-recorded messages and cryptic clues. Inside the tank of the toilet, for instance, are two saws, which won’t cut through the chains but will carve through flesh and bone.

Saw probably won’t stand up to excessive scrutiny — for one thing, you might ask whether the killer, or any human being outside a gimmicky screenplay, would have the physical and mental capacity to do all the elaborate things he does. And the red herring in this very underpopulated movie might as well be neon red: we expect to hear a “ding” and see an arrow point down at the character. But if first-time director James Wan has attended the school of Fincher, he gets high marks. Saw gets by on its mood of industrial dread, even during the expendable scenes featuring two cops (Danny Glover and Ken Leung) on the trail of what the press has dubbed “the Jigsaw Killer.” (Though, as Elwes points out, the villain isn’t technically a killer — he just sets up nasty traps that people either have the brains and survival instincts to get through, or they don’t.)

Carrying much of the movie, the frazzled and occasionally bickering Elwes and Whannell (the real mastermind behind the film’s horrors) do what’s required, but this is less an actor’s showcase than a director’s. The flashback to a portly man forced to crawl through a maze of razor wire is suitably squirmy without being overly graphic except for the usual forensic dialogue about it (“The cuts were so deep we found stomach acid on the floor”), and there’s a memorably eerie bit involving a stethoscope. Like Seven, Saw isn’t a typical slasher film so much as a philosophical charnel house inviting you to re-examine your life. But it’s too self-consciously clever a machine to truly send you out chilled. The madman’s exhaustive efforts stretch plausibility till it snaps; films like this always make me wonder how someone could have the time, let alone the resources, to devise and implement such fancy lethal head-games. Saw is like two guys in a room trying to top each other with morbid “what-would-you-do-if” scenarios. On that level, it works exactly as long as you’re in the theater with it, but not long afterward.

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