Cinema Signal:

The Name of the Game Was Murder
by Joan Lowery Nixon

. "Saw"
[Horror warning! Go no further if you have little appetite for bloody acts of desperation.]

This picture invites you in for a skillful and pseudo-realistic game of horror without the zombies. As an exercise in lethal dementia it derives its kicks from a clever play on life and death choices and a relentless exploitation of push-come-to-shove human motivation. In other words, if it's a matter of my death or yours, I'll do what it takes to survive. The rules? They're set by a psychotic genius.

To get the game started, we find two men in a room. In the dark, we first see Adam (Leigh Whannell) as he awakens from a drugged sleep to find himself underwater in a tub. When he jumps out, he finds himself chained to a sturdy pipe. He hears a sound and realizes he's not alone. He demands that whoever is in the room turn on the lights. When they come on with blinding brightness, we discover Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), a surgeon, chained to pipes in an identical fashion at the opposite corner of the room, seemingly a tiled toilet in an industrial building. Between them lies a man in a pool of blood, face down, a silver .38 in one hand, a microcassette player in the other.

After raging hysterically, the men calm down and try to understand their predicament and what put them in it. Each has clues in their pocket awaiting discovery, which tells them that Dr. Gordon has to find a way to kill Adam by 6 PM in order to save himself and, if he doesn't, both of them will die, along with Gordon's wife Alison (Monica Potter) and his young daughter.

Once the men start to cooperate, they follow another clue and discover hack saws hidden in the old, disgusting toilet. But they are no match for the heavy chains that bind them and so, in the conventions of game rules, must be intended for a different purpose. Gordon, the surgeon, realizes what that may be. He can free himself as soon as he's ready to cut off his foot.

In another moment of calm, Gordon recalls his involvement in a case of similar game playing and realizes why he was chosen for this one. In that one, police detective Tapp (Danny Glover) suspected him of being the genius behind the game in which a desperate young woman survived by cutting into her drugged but alive boyfriend's stomach in order to retrieve the key to her freedom. The killer, pathologically motivated to make sport of bringing people to kill through the instinct of self-preservation has earned the nickname, "Jigsaw."

Detective Tapp nearly captures the maniac, loses his partner and becomes so obsessed with finding the elusive madman again that he is taken off the police force for not being able to think about anything else. But, in retirement, he continues to pursue the lethal lunatic.

Time ticks away... which becomes so short as 6 PM nears and terror mounts. This is a gruesome route to movie-making attention, all the more for the skills involved to pull it off. Actor Leigh Whannel collaborated with director James Wan in writing the intricate tale. A certain awkwardness enters the film from time to time which seems to stem mostly from staging and a fairly complex task of editing.

The horror scares vary from effectively shocking to nice try. Visual excellence is led by the controlled moodiness and textures of light by Director of Photography David A. Armstrong and the grit of atmosphere and setting by Production Designer Julie Berghoff well conveys the twisted mind(s) that dreamt it up.

The major challenge of editing the timeline flashbacks and realtime intricacies went to Kevin Greutert who acquited himself as well as all else who participated. My only disappointment after the gut wrenching fascination here is in the final resolution, but I'm not going to be so aberrated as to tell you what it is.

This little trip into puzzle-making homicide is certainly not for everyone, but I'd count teenage boys and everyone who sat through Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" among those who will not let immersion in blood hinder their good time with arterial mayhem.

[Revenue report: With a production cost of $1.2 million, "Saw" has grossed more than $55 million in theatres. (Re: Variety, 2/11/05)] Click for full list of movie reviews

                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Site rating: 9

                                                   ~~ S. Spicer

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Cary Elwes as Dr. Lawrence Gordon
A game of death

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