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Every thriller contains red herrings. They are the cornerstone of the genre and have been cliché and transparent since pre-Agatha Christie days. Therefore it takes a sly director to confuse the audience deceiving them into mistaking a red herring for a sloppy misdirection. If your director is really clever, he'll hide the truth in plain sight while convincing the audience that they have all the answers and are smarter than the director. This craftiness M. Night Shyamalan a star with "Sixth Sense." This same guile caught me off guard in "Saw," a grisly serial killer flick out for Halloween that seemed so obvious, I cursed the simplicity of the criminals identity only to be completely off-base. I love being tricked and for that, in hindsight, I enjoyed the film.
Two strangers awake in a dank basement fortress chained to piping. Within moments, they discover they are the latest victims of a serial killer who forces complacent people to risk mutilation in order to survive. The first victim, Adam (the film's screenwriter, Leigh Whannell), has been judged by the killer for sitting back and watching others. The other, Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes, "Princess Bride"), a typical workaholic, has been deemed unworthy for neglecting his wife (Monica Potter, "Along Came a Spider") and daughter. The killer monitors their actions and finally tells the men their mission. Gordon must free himself from the chains by the only way necessary, by sawing off his foot, grab a gun from the middle of the room, and shoot Adam dead. All by 6 pm.
Newcomer director James Wan creates a visceral project, one that may gross out some audience members - however with CSI and ER on the public airwaves, I've even become desensitized to "Friday the 13th" flicks. The main setting: the cold, damp cellar, filled with blaring fluorescent lights, dripping plumbing, dead bodies and excrement, appear so realistic, I found myself holding my breath from the imagined stench.
Wan utilizes both darkness and flooded lighting to give an ethereal mood. The dreamlike quality continues with a climatic car chase between our killer and detective Danny Glover filmed at a fast speed.
Whannell's script is partially responsible for the zinger at the end but also contains some slapdash inconsistencies and slack transitions that are common with first-time writers. His flashback transitions are as such, "I remember the last words I said to my daughter," which would lead to a cut to an evening with his daughter. All that was needed is the blurring line like in dream sequences on "Brady Bunch" for the full effect. Also the final moment in the film felt unfulfilling. I don't mind "Twilight Zone" endings, but prefer some finality. It was as if we were watching a romantic comedy and our star decided two days before his wedding that he would not marry our ingénue. End of film. He still hasn't told her; the wedding is still two days away, many things could still occur. That is not an ending; it's a season finale at best. "Saw" suffers from a similar fate.
The cast is fine, particularly Whannell who portrays a weasel quality without losing likeability. Elwes, however, is not a leading man; we needed a more compelling actor for that role. Potter as his wife has been underutilized. Any actress could have played the role to no consequence. I enjoy Potter on "Boston Legal" on ABC and would have appreciated more time invested with her.
If you want to twitch and cringe this Halloween, catch "Saw" at your local theater. Also out for Old Hollow's eve, "Shaun of the Dead" is the most intentionally hilarious horror film ever. Imagine "Absolutely Fabulous" directed by George Romero or "28 Days Later" directed by Mel Brooks and you'll have this loopy comedy in your head. A crew of British slacker barflies must save the world from an inexplicable wave of zombie-ism and never has death and violence been handled so riotously. Grade: "Saw": B; "Shaun of the Dead": A
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