Tenacious, fierce, and weary, Detective Tapp (Danny Glover) doesn’t actually appear in Saw until late. When he does—following some long and horrific minutes in a basement bathroom, where the latest victims of a serial killer are slowly coming to understand their dire situation—Tapp looks at first like you’d expect. He’s yet another movie cop wandering through dark, damp interiors with a flashlight, obsessing over his inability to crack the case and visibly upset over the much-abused victims. Tapp’s eventual convoluted weirdness is attributable to Glover’s resourcefulness, since the script doesn’t know quite what to do with him.
Most of Tapp’s work is organized as flashbacks, as he and loyal and plucky partner Steven Sing (Ken Leung) track the villain. It seems this killer has seen the same movies you have (or at least you might guess this of director/co-writer James Wan and co-writer/star James Whanell). Tapp and Sing call this bad boy “Jigsaw,” because he’s leaving clues like pieces to a puzzle, arranged to showcase his ingenious cruelty. He (you know he’s a he) shows a particular affection for the grand scheming, grim lighting, and sheer brutality of Seven in his tedious superiority and unfair gaming of his panicky prey.
The first of these to show up on screen are Adam (Whannell) and Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes). Each is chained to an opposite wall in that bathroom; drippy and filthy (allowing for one reach into a nasty toilet to retrieve ostensibly vital information), this utterly awful location also features a bloody, faceless corpse in the center of the floor between them (apparently this fellow shot himself) and a one-way mirror and camera set up so the killer can get off on his handiwork.
A photographer and surgeon, Adam and Gordon’s professions have some minor bearing on the killer’s choices for their captivities and tortures, both lasting the length of the film. As they grog to consciousness in the film’s opening moments, they bicker, then bond, then reconsider their own moral flaws, then at last look aghast at their hopeless situation. And then, of course, the killer starts messing with them, offering each a chance to get out if only he betrays the other.
The hysterically arrogant, hyper-manipulative serial killer is a predictable type. (Danny Glover played one himself, in the underseen, effectively creepy Switchback .) Saw‘s version is classically grotesque, with emphasis on bodily abuses, in that low-budget-make-a-splash sort of way. It features the requisite unnerving murder scenes and devious devices, as well as encouragement of bad behavior by desperate victims and rip through bodies. These include a medieval-looking helmet timed to explode into the wearer’s head, unless she can find the key, which is hidden, naturally, in a foul place, as well as a saw left nearby Gordon, who realizes early on that it won’t cut through the chain, and so, he’s supposed to saw through his own leg. “Congratulations,” the killer tends to intone after these staged events, “You’re still alive,” because, well, because his particular peeve is his victims’ self-absorbed lack of appreciation for life. If it looks slightly less appreciable in his vision of it, that’s his prerogative: he’s a psycho killer, after all.
Admirably nervy, Wan, along with cinematographer David Armstrong and editor Kevin Greutert, makes this scenario look more compelling than it is, with speedy-scary timelapse and nearly unreadable nightmarish-terror scenes, the majority in that basement. For all its visual hurtling, however, Saw‘s plot doesn’t move much. When it opens out—into flashbacks of previous murder scenes, as well as Tapp and Sing’s investigation of their initial suspect, Gordon (in the interrogation room, in his office)—scene structures and dialogue become awkward, stilted, too explanatory.
These scenes outside the basement also resort to familiar serial killer movie tricks, such as the beleaguered family, in this case, Gordon’s wife Alison (Monica Potter) and adorable, trusting daughter Diana (Makenzie Vega). Predictably, the killer not only has them tied up in a bedroom and sniffling in abject fear, but also calling daddy on a cunningly supplied cell phone, so as to incite his violence against Adam. (That said, it is unsettling to watch the little girl’s teary face; she, at least, is convincingly terrified.)
Worse, the movie doesn’t take advantage of its primary diversion, the Tapp story. While Adam and Gordon flail about (Elwes, strangely, is both weak and overwrought in this role, and not helped at all by the low-rent makeup), Tapp is looking increasingly weary and annoyed, clambering crime scenes, muttering to himself, and fretting over details, even after he’s been taken off the case (this inevitable turn apparently results from a combination of factors: Tapp’s excessive dedication, loss of perspective, and poor hygiene). Glover makes Tapp’s tics and fumbles into little ballets of anxious determination. Impossibly, and by what seems sheer will, Tapp does make his way to the showdown, where the film goes spastic, partly melodramatic, partly tricky, partly long overdue.