I was rather amazed to see Saw in Midtown Video only a few months after its theatrical run. That's highly unusual. Normally it would be a sign of a true stinker of a film. Not in this case. Saw is a stylish, tense and surprising horror/thriller.
The movie depends on surprises, so I'm not going to spoil anything in my review. Nothing discussed should ruin your experience with it.
It was written and made by a pair of Melbourne Australians in Los Angeles. The director, James Wan, doesn't look like he's been out of high school long. The film was made with a microscopic budget that sometimes betrays them. The whole film looks like it was made in different parts of the same set, and a car scene late in the movie is patently fake. On the other hand, the set design, lighting design, and attention to detail is impressive for a small film. The film's central set, a rusted-out, filthy industrial bathroom, especially works.
The same goes for the cast: Cary Elwes, Danny Glover, Dina Meyer, Monica Potter, Shawnee Smith (who takes a small role and runs with it) and Tobin Bell are all higher-budget stars. Everyone is superb, with the slight exception of a beefy-looking Elwes, who strains believability in some of the weepy moments. He's off just enough at those moments that you can see him acting. But that doesn't throw off the film.
The movie opens with a man — Adam (scriptwriter Leigh Whannell) — coming to in a tub of water, in the afore-mentioned bathroom. He finds himself shackled to a pipe. Then he learns he's not alone. There's another man, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Elwes), shackled to another pipe across the room. Between them lies a body in a growing pool of blood, its head blown open in apparent suicide; one hand holds a gun, the other a small tape recorder. That's the set-up: two men locked in a room. Everything proceeds from here.
This is one of the only two problems I have with the film: its structure. Too much depends on events outside of the central trap. It's a lot like being inside the movie Se7en from the point of view of the victims; the important detective information has to be shoe-horned in, disrupting us. (This movie really is a child of Se7en in a lot of ways.) We are dropped into a dilemma with absolutely no knowledge of the characters, situation or motivations. At first, everything we learn we must be told by one of the characters in flashbacks. We don't know the trustworthiness of the character, so we don't know if we can believe what he tells us. Unfortunately, the director cuts to scenes the character wasn't in, breaking that mood and revealing the cheat. It quickly becomes obvious the movie is just using the trick of breaking up the narrative, and the sense of time, to keep certain information from us until the plot calls for it. It was effective in Memento, less so here. This also reminds me of Cube, which had a very similar construction and theme — testing humans to destruction under bizarre, extreme physical and psychological circumstances — but successfully never left its single claustrophobic set until the final moments of the film.