‘Saw’ not scary, but charming

“Saw” had a lot of potential to be a really cool movie. A madman traps people in devious ways and forces them to do unspeakable things in an attempt for survival. It’s a great formula because it allows a writer to push his characters to horrifying extremes. In the hands of a good screenwriter, “Saw” could’ve been a deeply disturbing film. Unfortunately, it was not written by a good screenwriter.

“Saw” centers around the struggle of two men imprisoned by the aforementioned madman. Cary Elwes plays Dr. Lawrence Gordon, who is trapped with a petulant little bastard named Adam (Leigh Whannell, who also wrote the movie). Gordon is told he must kill Adam before 6 p.m. or his wife and daughter will be executed. As the two men try to devise a way out of their situation, periodic flash backs give viewers exposition about the madman and his previous slayings. Danny Glover shows up as a hard-bitten cop on the killer’s trail. Then 6 p.m. comes and the film ends.

This movie’s most crippling fault is its dialogue. In many ways it’s cute. Whannell tried hard to be edgy and clever, but in the end it comes off sounding like hack work. Characters say things like “Sometimes I wish you would just tell me you hate me. At least there would be some passion in it,” and “I don’t care if you cover yourself with peanut butter and have a ten-hooker gangbang.”

The dialogue doesn’t really hold together. The edgy parts are too clichéd and the clever parts are too forced and neither element seems to grow organically out of the story. Adam makes cynical observations about the human condition and cracks wordy thesaurus jokes (jokes where the intended humor is solely in word choice). In the end, the script sounds like film students trying to be smart.

The script is a calculated imitation of successful movies but has no life of its own. Case in point: the killer is named the jigsaw killer because he cuts puzzle piece-shaped chunks out of his victims’ flesh. It’s an interesting thing for a killer to do but writers don’t bother to explain why he does it, incorporate it into the plot or use it in any interesting ways. It doesn’t relate to anything else in the movie. Much of the movie is like that.

Another problem with the film is Cary Elwes, an actor I have always liked. He can usually be counted on for a good performance and was downright brilliant as the sneering villain in “Ella Enchanted.” He is not a great dramatic actor, however, and “Saw” proves to be too much for him. The role calls for too wide a range of emotions and too much intensity. Elwes has this funny little whimper he keeps making throughout the movie, often accompanied by a meek whipped puppy facial expression.

Between the contrived dialogue and a truly goofy performance by Elwes, the movie winds up being unintentionally hilarious.

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By the end of “Saw,” it had actually won me over. After I got over my disappointment that it wasn’t going to be the taut psychological thriller I wanted to be, I began to enjoy the cheesiness. Whannell devises some nifty traps for the jigsaw killer to put his victims in and there are some inspired technical tricks involving 360-degree photography. Whannell, the movie’s writer, even manages to wring a few interesting twists out of his plot in its final moments, although, if the general quality of the writing had been better, they probably wouldn’t have been as interesting.

Watching “Saw” was much like the experience one has when watching children put on a play. In spite of whatever flaws the production may have, it’s a charming effort and one must admire the filmmakers’ obvious enthusiasm. Although “Saw” misses its mark, its zany combination of vision and incompetence make it an enjoyable viewing experience good for a couple laughs. It’s not scary, but it’s rarely boring.