Monday, November 22, 2010

Saw I, II and III and the Art of Torture: A Retrospective

The problem with film criticism is that film critics are not robots. It's inevitable that when walking into the cinema that you're bringing along all of the predjudices, irritations, and emotions that come with simply living day to day as a human being, and these inevitably will cloud the way that you interpret the movie that you see. The person you are today may resemble the person you'll be tomorrow, but you're still different from that person in a million, almost incalculable ways, and this person may view the world - and the art within it - very differently.

I am an emotional person. I find the process of watching a film to be an emotional experience, which is why my feelings are sometimes at odds with the sterile deconstruction often necessary when writing about movies. I'm also the type of person who enjoys keeping up on film news, box office grosses, rumors and all of those other things which so often get in the way of me enjoying my little hobby, so naturally I often have certain expectations when going into a movie which are unfair to the film, and the amount of work that has gone into it. With that in mind, I often don't write thoughts on a film until i've allowed myself a bit of emotional distance, and quite often even avoid films that are surrounded by emotion and/or hype until I feel like I remove myself from these outside elements.

With that in mind, I decided to finally tackle a series of films that have provoked particularly strong reactions, both positive and negative, but in any case have proven to be a license to print money for its creators and producers. The Saw franchise was born out of the classic hollywood dream: two film school friends who pool together money to shoot a short film based on a wider concept, who then shop it around to try and get funding for a feature length version to be written by the pair, shot by one and featuring the other in a major role. This eventual low-budget film somehow captures the cultural zeitgeist of the time and becomes a blockbuster hit, spawning dozens of imitators and a slew of follow-ups. Even while being lapped up by an enthusiastic audience, the films were condemned as exercises in depravity and cited as one of the prime examples of "torture porn" - a title given to films that seem to wallow in violence while focusing on the suffering of their protagonists. 

I've avoided these films, just as I've avoided the similar films which followed that were roundly criticized since there was so many strong emotions around them that it seemed like it would be impossible to appreciate any qualities that they may or may not have with these influences ringing in my ears. However, as the series passes its seventh installment - which initially promised to be its last, but whose success likely suggests otherwise - I decided it was time to dive in and see what all the fuss is really about. I'll admit that as a teenager I was a total gore-hound, and even as my tastes in film and filmmakers was developing I never really lost my taste for cinematic violence, despite being a particularly non-violent and unassuming person in my personal life who finds real-life violence to be deplorable. 

This article covers only the first three films in the series, which I understand to make up a minor trilogy in the greater scheme of the films as a whole. I do plan to continue to watch the rest of the films, and with no small amount of enthusiasm, even if I feel a measure of guilt for my enjoyment of something that is so obviously bad for me. Or do I only feel that way because of my expectations of what I should feel? I never felt bad enjoying Ruggero Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust (well maybe when they killed that sea turtle), or the endless supply of Italian Zombie films which arrived in the wake of Dawn of the Dead, so what makes me feel this way now? I can't imagine that it's maturity.

Saw (2004) was originally meant to go straight-to-DVD, and even in its present form resembles many of the low-budget horror films that pop up randomly on video store shelves. It's rough around the edges - particularly in its acting, which ranges from dull (Danny Glover's disinterested and raspy performance), to irritating (co-creater and writer Leigh Whannell's high pitched whine), to.. whatever the heck Cary Elwes was doing, and director James Wan seems to be piecing his visual style together as he goes - though is obviously influenced by the harsh lighting and disturbed tone of David Fincher's Seven

The plot has a great low-budget hook - two strangers are trapped in a dark, filthy bathroom - chained to the floor with a corpse laying between them. Within the room are clues to both their imprisonment as well as their release, but they will have to test their own will in various awful ways in order to free themselves. Their captor calls himself Jigsaw, and appears to his victims in the guise of a pale, creepy dummy, and who has taken it upon himself to play a series of often bafflingly complicated games which often end in scenes of astounding violence. The two men - played by Cary Elwes and Leigh Whannell - have to work together, even as Jigsaw pits them against one another, while their connections are further revealed in a series of flashbacks, including those that involve Detective David Tapp's (Danny Glover) attempts to capture Jigsaw.

Less polished and (significantly) less violent than its sequels, the first Saw film seems much more interested in its concept - and the interactions of its players - than the violent set pieces, though gets plenty of mileage out of Jigsaw's tendency to force its participants to harm themselves in order to escape - one of the key concepts is that the chained characters are expected to saw through their own legs to escape. These moments are generally realized in the pained expressions of the characters rather than close-ups of bodies being torn apart, though this is likely a result of the low-budget rather than design. Unfortunately, these interactions tend to often be rather ridiculous - particularly the extended scenes of Elwes and Whannel slowly figuring out clues that seem at least partially obvious to all but the slowest audience members. 

It's still an effective concept, however, and Jigsaw - as voiced and played by veteran actor Tobin Bell - makes for a creepy and effective villain. At its center, Saw is a mystery film, and the audience eventually learns how these disparate characters are connected, and why they have been chosen to go through these ordeals. The build up gets a bit tiring - Detective Tapp's character serves little purpose aside from occasionally getting us out of the room - but the actual climax is very well done, with a slew of information and previous images and quotes melding together as a sense of realization washes over the audience. It's all a bit too messy to be very good, but a good hook and a strong ending can get you pretty far, and to that end I can see why it found an audience. Even while getting a bit sick of things, the ending made me feel a bit enthusiastic about moving on to the film's sequel.

Saw II (2005) had the difficult task of upping the ante on the first film, while still sticking to the elements which made it successful. Darren Lynn Bousman inherits the reigns, and his slick visual style which focuses on smooth transitions between scenes - along with a deep commitment to violent set pieces - serves this film well. Former New Kid Donnie Wahlberg stars as officer Eric Matthews, who interacts one-on-one with the cancer-ridden Jigsaw as he watches a group of people - which include his son Daniel - attempt to escape a trap-filled house before the nerve gas being pumped through the air vents kills them all.

The set pieces are bigger, and the larger number of characters and bigger stage means that the film is less reliant on the interplay between the actors, though thankfully the acting quality has risen significantly as well. Wahlberg - who has proven himself a capable actor in productions like Band of Brothers and The Sixth Sense - actually does a great job in the lead, capably showing a character both passionate and filled with rage, and his verbal sparring with Bell provides some of the films highlights. The assembled players within the house don't have much to do besides look sick, angry and/or worried and then die in awful ways, but they all do this quite effectively.

Along with the bigger budget comes bigger - and impossibly complex - torture devices. One of the common criticisms of the series is an inability to suspend disbelief because of simply how complex some of the schemes become, but I grew up on slasher films inevitably featuring a teleporting mass-murderer, so i'll cut it some slack. The violence is definitely more pronounced, but the interplay of those stuck in the house reminded me of Vincenzo Natali's Cube and Bousman keeps things moving, even if it's hardly very scary. The climax throws another big twist at the audience, but while it apes the reveal of the first film it's a bit more convoluted and therefore not as effective. Still, on the whole I think this is a superior film.

Saw III (2006) brings back director Darren Lynn Bousman, who chooses a more meandering story for much of the running time while focusing much more intently on often excruciating scenes of violence. From the opening scene of Detective Matthews (Whalberg, returning briefly) hobbling himself, things are bleak and don't lighten up for the entirety of the nearly two hour running time (on the unrated edition). People are twisted, frozen, shot, and ripped apart in exacting detail, and most of the interplay that typified the two previous films seems to have vanished.

The film's first half deals with Jigsaw - close to death from a brain tumor - attempting to, along with his new assistant, force a young doctor to operate on him. Much of the second follows a revenge obsessed grieving father (Angus Macfadyen) who is put through a series of tests putting him face to face with the driver who killed his son. There is interesting material, and Jigsaw is presented much more sympathetically than in the previous films, but the sheer volume of unpleasantness tends to outweigh any meditations on revenge and obsession.

The acting isn't as shaky as in the first film, but is also less reliable than in the second with Angus Macfadyen and Shawnee Smith so internally tortured and intense that it's hard to get involved with their respective ordeals. Tobin Bell is obviously the series' MVP, and he's terrific once again, though the complex nature of the various devices continue to be a bit hard to swallow. The film's ending is convoluted, and a bit predictable, but is certainly appropriately messy. At this point everyone involved seems to know that there will be more to come, and the groundwork is laid for future installments.

I find myself fascinated with the evolution of film series as they continue, particularly in the horror genre which - when faced with the need to top itself - tends to rapidly go in the direction of violence rather than scares. The Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street series introduced elements of comedy and (eventually) meta-commentary, but the Saw series is simply adding upon its own mythology while piling on moments of gut-turning unpleasantness and bleakness. 

Much has been made of the connection between the increased violence and scenes of agony in these films with the depravity involved with the War in Iraq and the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. It's possible that we all simply had torture on the brain, but equally concerning is the idea that perhaps audience members - particularly teenagers, for whom this series is obviously aimed - are able to easily relate to the dourness and bleakness which define the horror films in the mid-2000s. This might be overstating things, though the increased success of the films (and enthusiasm from its core audience) shows a group that has obviously been hungering for what these films deliver. 

As the series continues, I find myself curious about what direction it can possibly go in. The recent film being released in 3D shows a commitment to the gimmicks which were popular in 80s horror cinema, but these films don't seem to lend themselves to the lightness (and emotional distance) that such gimmicks can provide. Perhaps audiences cheer the results of Jigsaw's creations, just as my generation cheered Jason Voorhees slaughtering teens with a machete, and get the same visceral release, but simply on a slicker and more graphic level. I suppose i'll have to see for myself, as i'm off to watch the next three films, the very act of which seems to prove that there's something elusively appealing about these films and what they represent. Perhaps by the time I finish i'll be able to identify it.

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