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Grizzly does not mean scary, which is a lesson that first-time director James Wan and co-writer (and actor) Leigh Whannell do not master in this 100 minute long mish-mash of a horror flick.

A thoroughly intriguing if ghoulish premise, some original nightmarish images, and a young director eager to show off his talents make the movie atmospheric and intense. However, the whole thing gets caught in the razor wire of shoddy acting, a sociopath who makes you go “huh?”, a lack of engaging characters, and a morass of internally inconsistent details. The bitter taste in your mouth when you leave will not be fear, but instead will be disappointment, that what could have been a smart, original horror-fest turned into such an uneven wannabe.

Anyone who has seen the brilliant and intense trailer will be familiar with the key plot elements. Three men –a doctor, a corpse, and a voyeuristic photographer—are locked in a windowless room for reasons unknown. The doctor, Lawrence (Cary Elwes, who spends several scenes substituting a smirk for acting), is sleepily calm, seeming to accept his lot, whereas Adam (Leigh Whannell) vacillates between empty rage and suspicion. Together with the clues that they have been given, including a mini-cassette player, photographs and two small saws, Adam and Lawrence seek to solve the riddle and escape.

As with many intriguing 30-second concepts, the execution of the story starts getting bogged down within minutes. Lawrence and Adam alternate telling their stories in flash-backs, which lay out what they know about their situation and the person responsible, known as the “Jigsaw Killer”. When the movie jumps into the past, it follows two detectives (Danny Glover and Ken Leung) investigating a series of murders, where individuals are left in deadly traps and must do something horrific to survive. For example, a woman must root out a key in a man’s intestines to unlock the deadly “reverse bear trap” strapped to her head even though the man is drugged but alive. The killer lets it be known that the point of her situation –as with each of his macabre traps— is to teach her to appreciate life more. Or something. By this point, the audience is just there to see what the next life-threatening situation will be and whether Lawrence and Adam will ever get around to sawing through their legs to get out of the room.

Wan and Whannell clearly have been influenced by modern horror stalwarts like “Se7en”, “28 Days Later”, and “The Ring”, which results in a stilted form of brinksmanship where the end game is the most memorable gruesome image. Tying the scenes together, much less ending the movie with a tight little knot, is beyond their story-spinning ken this time. However, they deserve recognition for aiming high and for providing an engaging if ultimately disappointing ride.

Parents should know that this movie is the stuff of nightmares, even if the inured horror aficionado might not find it scary. The images of torture and death are brutal and explicit, lingering in mind long after the movie ends. There are multiple on-screen deaths, a child’s life is threatened, characters die, a father is forced to make terrible decisions to protect his family, and there are no scenes free of peril. There are references to suicide, adultery, drug addiction, madness, and self-mutilation. There is strong language, and characters smoke. Underlying the killer’s motive is the notion that everyone deserves to be tortured and that there are no innocents.

Families who do choose to see “Saw” might wish to discuss the killer’s motivation, whether the deaths are consistent with that motive, and what the characters might have done differently. They also might wish to talk about the resonance (or lack thereof) of movies where characters face death and re-evaluate their lives and priorities. Do Lawrence or Adam become more appealing characters as you know them better and as their fate looks bleaker? Do their choices become clearer as they reassess their priorities? What do you think the “right” life would be like so as not to attract the killer’s attention?

Families who enjoyed this movie should see the scarier and more clever “Se7en”, which also features a grotesquely creative killer with an upside-down moral compass, devious deaths, and the no-loose-ends denouement that this flick aspires to but cannot provide. Other recommended movies that seem to leave their fingerprints on “Saw” include 28 Days Later, The Usual Suspects, The Ring and Trainspotting, all of which feature disturbing violence, mature content, and grizzly, bizarre, macabre and just plain bloody images.

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