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A Cut Above

For sheer carnage, Saw shreds the competition.

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Cary Elwes stars in Saw, the most brutal - movie youll see this year.
  • Cary Elwes stars in Saw, the most brutal movie youll see this year.

It takes mighty big stones to name your horror movie Saw, knowing full well that that's popular fan-slang for Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a movie worshiped by gorehounds worldwide. When you take that name for your own, you had damn well better deliver a memorable, worthy contender to the horror canon.

First-time feature director James Wan, a veteran of several TV cooking shows, of all things, need not worry. If Saw isn't the scariest horror movie of the year, it's certainly the most brutal. There are no cutaways from violent acts, no grotesque depravity Wan is afraid to visit upon his characters, and most important, there's no one who's safe from the carnage: Anyone can die at any time.

In case it isn't already abundantly clear, Saw is not a casual date movie. Many will decry it as excessive or sadistic; cultural conservatives will most certainly deem it abhorrent. This is a movie for those who think Natural Born Killers wasn't sufficiently bloodthirsty. Fans of industrial music finally have a mainstream movie release that represents their zeitgeist.

Anyway. Two men awaken from unconsciousness chained to opposite ends of a large, dingy bathroom, and between them is the body of a man who has apparently blown his own brains out. The younger of the two men, Adam (screenwriter Leigh Whannell), is a photographer; the older, Lawrence (Cary Elwes), is a doctor. Both have envelopes in their pockets containing microcassettes, and Lawrence's also has a single bullet and a small key. The dead man in the middle of the room has a microcassette player.

Lawrence gradually figures out what's happening. Not long ago, he was interrogated by police as a suspect in a case involving a mysterious maniac known as Jigsaw. Referred to as a serial killer, Jigsaw hasn't actually killed anyone in the literal sense. Rather, he singles out people who he feels don't properly appreciate life and places them in elaborate traps that require either self-mutilation or the murder of another person in order to escape. In the trap at hand, Lawrence learns from the tape that he must kill Adam by 6 p.m., or his wife and daughter will be killed. Adam can protect himself by escaping first, but there's only one apparent way to do that: Use the bone saws provided to cut off his own foot, thereby escaping the chain that binds his leg to the wall (a blatant lift from Mad Max).

Although the men remain in the room for most of the film, the narrative frequently jumps back in time, as we learn more about exactly how Lawrence and Adam came to be there, what their connection to each other is, and how one particular cop (Danny Glover) became obsessed with the Jigsaw case. We're given reasons to suspect that any of them might be in on it.

Director Wan gets so much right that it's a shame he slips up in a couple of key areas. The lead actors simply aren't that great, for one thing. As for the climax -- without spoiling, let's just say it depends upon something rather implausible. It probably won't matter until you start thinking about it afterwards, but if this thing becomes a franchise, let's demand more logic for the sequel.

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