Adam, a for-hire photographer, and Dr Lawrence Gordon, wake up to find themselves chained by the leg to the pipes at opposite ends of a public toilet, armed only with hacksaws. They figure out they're being held captive by a serial torturer who forces his victims to kill themselves, or to kill one another to save themselves. A taped message informs Dr Gordon that his must murder his cellmate by 6pm, or his kidnapped wife and child will die.
"Saw" is the kind of empty torture-porn movie that should be impossible to swallow - but isn't. People do terribly cruel things, unnecessarily, all the time. It didn't feel all that different to watching the bombing of Baghdad, or seeing photos of the torture at Abu Ghraib.
Despite the fact that we should be used to witnessing such evils, "Saw" is still revoltingly scary. Why? Not only because it's gory, but also because its success shows that we are getting used to the idea that terrible cruelty and moral authority can be partners.
Ah it's just fun, it's just a movie, people say.
Well yes, you could laugh the whole way through it. Or you could worry that filmmakers are pushing the boundaries to the point where mainstream films are beginning to resemble atrocities like the pornographic cult movie, "Cannibal Holocaust". "Saw" embraces the idea that all is fair in love, war, pornography and horror.
All the victims in Saw appear unlikeable and weak as if to justify the moral authority of their torturer. In their stupidity, their selfishness and their sinfulness, they seem to earn their hellish torture. Each time they make a mistake, or in any way breach the family values system, they are punished completely out of proportion to their crimes.
In Saw's world, the divine power to judge and punish has become the domain of mere humans. Characters are pornographically humiliated without the sick sense of fun that Tarantino relies on in "Reservoir Dogs", or the human appeal of David Fincher and Andrew Kevin Walker's "Se7en".
Horror is, and always has been about Europeans and Americans exploring their worst fears en mass and so it reflects the nature of society at the time. When teen sex was taboo but happening, the monsters always killed the slutty girls first ("Spam in a Cabin"). When we feared mass movements and mob violence, horrors showed us being attacked by hordes of mindless zombies ("Night of the Living Dead"). When we became aware of the power of other cultures, it was Native American graveyards ("Pet Cemetery"). And now we fear cruel dictators, and the threat they pose to our families and our freedom. That's why "Saw" suits the world of 2005 so well. In it, a serial killer toys with his victims, much as a torturer serving an evil regime would with his helpless prisoners.
But despite the film's relevance, in the end, it's not very good. The acting is often amateurish (the words "Made for TV" spring to mind). The stars are all big names but they do nothing more than trundle out stock action movie characters - the flawed but doting father, the cop driven mad by an unsolved case... etc. The result is that the movie's creators exploit serious themes without having the courage to develop convincing characters, and really deal with issues sympathetically, or make meaning of the horror. In fact, I suspect that the filmmakers weren't even aware of what they were saying.
So, see Saw, but beware of taking it too lightly. Sure, it has all the marks of a typical popcorn thriller. Sure, the obligatory twist in the tale ending is the subject of flame wars and plot related debates on movie message boards. But because torture, death, misery and gore are not "just good fun", it leaves you feeling only half woken from a very bad dream when it ends.
- Jean Barker