Writers: James Wan & Leigh Whannell
Cast: Cary Elwes, Leigh Wannell, Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Michael Emerson, Ken Leung, Shawnee Smith, Dina Meyer, Makenzie Vega, Tobin Bell
Plot: A man named Adam (Leigh Wannell) wakes up in a tub of water in a darkened room. Draining the tub, he begins calling for help, only to find that he’s trapped in an ancient, grimy bathroom with Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes). Both men are chained to pipes in the filthy room, neither with any memory of how they came to be there. In the middle of the room, lying in a pool of blood, is a dead body clutching a gun and a tape recorder. In his pocket, Adam finds a microcassette with “Play Me” written on it. Gordon checks his own pocket and finds not only a tape, but a single bullet and a key. Adam snatches the tape recorder from the body and plays his tape, which contains a taunting message. Gordon’s tape, however, tells him that his goal in the “game” is Adam’s death, that the dead man killed himself because there was so much poison in his blood, that there are “ways to win” hidden all around him, and that if Adam is still alive by six o’clock, Gordon’s wife and daughter will die.
Inside a toilet tank, Adam finds a pair of rusty hacksaws and tosses the black bag that contained them into the tub, out of Gordon’s vision. Adam’s saw breaks and he hurls it in anger, cracking a mirror. Gordon realizes the saws won’t cut the heavy chains, but will cut through their feet. He realizes they’ve been captured by the mysterious “Jigsaw” killer, a man who has been kidnapping people and placing them in horrible deathtraps.
In flashback, we see detectives David Tapp (Danny Glover) and Steven Sing (Ken Leung) uncovering a previous Jigsaw trap. The police find a series of other victims and the traps in which they died, although Jigsaw himself hasn’t killed anybody; he instead places victims in situations where there will cause their own deaths in an effort to survive. At one crime scene, Detective Kerry (Dina Meyer) finds a penlight with Gordon’s prints on it. At the hospital, Gordon speaks to students about the condition of a cancer patient (Tobin Bell), and is interrupted by orderly Zep Hindle (Michael Emerson), who feels Gordon doesn’t care for his patients as people. Tapp and Sing bring Gordon in for questioning over the penlight, and Gordon admits he was with someone else when he the crime was committed. When his alibi holds up, Sing has Gordon listen to the testimony of a woman named Amanda (Shawnee Smith), one of the few people to survive a Jigsaw trap, as she tells how she had to dig a key out of someone else to free herself from a reverse bear-trap. When she frees herself, a puppet riding a tricycle congratulates her for staying alive. In the police station, a broken Amanda — a drug addict — admits that Jigsaw “helped” her by making her value her life.
Returning to the present, Adam realizes the mirror he broke is two-way and smashes the rest of it, revealing a hidden camera. Gordon begins to search the room for an “X,” as implied by the tape, and remembers the last thing he said to his daughter Diana (Makenzie Vega). Diana believed there was a man in her bedroom, and Gordon reassured her that he was safe and that he wasn’t going to leave her and his wife Alison (Monica Potter). Despite his reassurance, Diana goes to sleep listening to her parents argue in the other room. Gordon tosses Adam his wallet to show him a picture of his wife and daughter, but Adam instead finds a picture of Alison and Diana tied up with a message written on it: “X marks the spot. Sometimes you see more with your eyes shut.” Adam hides the picture from Gordon. In flashback, again, we see that Diana and Alison were trapped in the house right after Gordon left. Their captor is the orderly, Zep. Through the window, Tapp is observing the house from across the street in a room full of surveillance equipment, photos, and news clippings about Jigsaw: he has become obsessed, and believes Gordon is the killer. We see how he and Sing tracked down Jigsaw to a warehouse, where they find one of his victims trapped and gagged. Rather than free him, Tapp decides to allow him to remain trapped as Jigsaw arrives so he can observe what happens. The hooded Jigsaw tells his victim that he’s going to be a “test subject,” and Tapp and Sing jump out with their guns. Jigsaw steps on a button and a drill begins that will kill the latest victim. While Sing rescues the victim, Jigsaw slashes Tapp’s throat and flees. Sing stumbles into a trap, triggering a rifle that blows his own head off, and Jigsaw staggers away. In the present, Tapp (his neck scarred and voice damaged) is determined to get Jigsaw.
Back in the present, Zep watches the video feed of Adam and Gordon in the bathroom. Adam, reading the message on the photo, suggests Gordon turn off the lights. In the dark, they find an X on the wall behind Gordon in glow-in-the-dark paint. He breaks through the wall and finds a locked box. Using the key from his pocket, Gordon opens the box to reveal a cell phone, cigarettes, lighter, and a note. The note tells Gordon the cigarettes are harmless, and that he doesn’t need a gun to kill Adam. The phone turns out to be useless – it’s rigged to only receive calls. Gordon remembers the night before, returning to his car and feeling he was being followed before being attacked by someone wearing a pig mask. Gordon questions how Adam knew to turn off the lights, and Adam shows him the picture, apologizing for hiding it. In view of the cameras, Gordon dips the cigarette into the poison blood, then shuts off the lights again and whispers something to Adam. Zep’s monitor goes dark and he can’t see what’s happening, and when the lights go back on, Gordon tosses Adam a clean cigarette and the lighter. Adam, unconvincingly, pretends to die after taking a few puffs, and Gordon demands Jigsaw release him, but a jolt of electricity in Adam’s chain quickly reveals him to be alive… and appears to have jogged his memory. Adam, a photographer, was abducted while in his darkroom developing pictures… of Dr. Lawrence Gordon.
The phone rings and Gordon hears the voices of his wife and daughter. Alison warns him to not believe Adam’s lies: he knew everything about Gordon before they were abducted. Gordon calls Adam a liar, but Adam reveals that he knows Gordon wasn’t with sick patients the night before, as he claimed. Adam was in the parking lot, taking pictures of him, and pulls out the bag his handsaws were in. It’s full of photos of Gordon, taken by Adam, who is hired to track rich men who cheat on their wives. Gordon denies the charge and asks Adam who paid him, and he describes Detective Tapp. Looking at Adam’s photos, he recognizes Zep in the window of his house just as the clock reaches six o’clock.
Back at Gordon’s, Alison frees herself just as Zep arrives. She pretends to still be bound and he makes her call Gordon to tell him he failed. As she says it, though, she attacks Zep. The gun goes off in the fight, and Tapp comes running from across the street. All Gordon can hear on the phone are gunshots and screams. His chain electrifies, shocking him unconscious, while Tapp chases Zep to a warehouse.
Gordon wakes and, screaming, uses his shirt to tie off his leg and begins to saw through his ankle. Tapp catches up to Zep, but Zep manages to shoot him. Gordon, now free from his chain, takes the bullet he was given and crawls to the gun in the dead body’s hand. He shoots Adam in the shoulder as Zep walks in. Adam, still alive, knocks down Zep and beats him with the toilet lid, killing him, and Gordon – weakened and delirious — promises to go for help. He crawls away and Adam searches Zep for a key. Instead, he finds another tape. Playing it reveals the truth: Zep was just another pawn in the game, forced by Jigsaw to terrorize Gordon’s family in exchange for the antidote to a poison he was given. As Adam listens, the body in the center of the room stands up. He is John Kramer, Gordon’s cancer patient… he is Jigsaw, and he’s been alive the whole time. He tells Adam the key to his chain is in the bathtub, but it drained away when Adam woke up in the very beginning. John explains why he plays his games… as he is dying, he wants to make others grateful to be alive. He turns off the lights, tells Adam the game is over, and closes the door.
Thoughts: This series is a magnificent example of what TVTropes.org calls “sequel decay.” After the original Saw was a hit for Lionsgate films, they decided to churn out a new installment every Halloween, and by 2010 they were on part seven. The law of diminishing returns set in, though, and seven was (so far at least) the last movie. Which is good, because the sequels spiraled out of control in efforts to add layers of complexity that really just made the entire franchise a garbled mess. And the real shame in that is that it makes people forget that the first film, the 2004 Saw, is actually really good.
The thing that made Saw great is that layer of complexity that future installments screwed up so badly. We begin with what is, in essence, a locked room mystery. We have two men who have to dig through the layers of their own past to discover their connection to each other and to their mad tormentor. Each clue they uncover makes the mystery that much more engaging, finally leading up to a truly memorable final scene. While later movies turned Jigsaw’s traps into a horrific haunted house/maze, forcing the victims to run a gauntlet, this first game basically takes place all in one room.
In fact, the movie really contains two separate mysteries. In the flashback sequences, we see Gordon and Tapp trying to solve the mystery of who Jigsaw is and why he’s placing his victims in these elaborate traps. As a pure mystery it works very well, with lots of different suspects, red herrings, and moments of misdirection to distract us from the real killer and his real motivation. The seeming revelation of Zep is an even better piece of misdirection — once you believe he’s Jigsaw, you stop trying to piece together the rest of the clues even as they’re being spooled out in front of you. The other mystery is more of a puzzle game, a room full of clues and tools that have to be used in exactly the right order to “win” Jigsaw’s challenge. This layer of the film almost feels like a video game, like Myst or one of its many imitators, and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the filmmakers were familiar with that new kind of storytelling when they wrote the script. To me, this is the fun part of the movie. Every clue, every weapon, every hint about what’s happening are all right there in the room with Adam and Gordon from the very beginning – it’s just a matter of finding them and figuring them out. This is probably the longest plot synopsis I’ve written in this entire experiment, and that’s purely because it has to be – you need to get each little tidbit in place or the next thing doesn’t make any sense.
Those two layers combine to make Saw enormously different from other horror movies of the time. It’s smart, well-written, and well-structured as both a mystery and a puzzle, that meld together. Furthermore, there’s a great deal of terror inherent in the fact that Jigsaw (in an extremely twisted way) kinda has a point – most people do take their lives for granted. Of course, by placing his victims in ironic traps, often structured to have some sort of parallel to whatever their particular vice is, writers James Wan and Leigh Wannell have returned to the classic horror movie trope of the Killer-as-Morality Police. This takes it to the extreme, even more so than when Jason was chopping up teenagers for having sex and smoking pot, but the idea is similar.
On another level, there’s a fear that comes in when the viewer is forced to question what he or she would do in these circumstances. Jigsaw doesn’t even have the trace elements of the supernatural we got from the nigh-indestructible Michael Meyers – he’s very human, he’s in fact dying (and does die in the third film), and all of the assorted traps and games he plays feel like they have a very strong basis in reality. I’m no engineer, I’m not going to pretend I could rig up a trap like Jigsaw’s even if I wanted to, but do I believe that somebody could? Hell yes, I do. And if it’s possible, even if you’ve never pissed off anybody as much as Dr. Gordon pissed off John Kramer, you are forced to look at each trap and wonder what you would do in that situation, if you could mutilate yourself (or someone else) in order to stay alive, if you could rank who lives and dies in any way that would allow you to live with yourself afterwards. Horrible thoughts, terrible thoughts, which make for absolutely spine-curling horror.
Another thing that really makes Saw different from so many other horror films is the victim pool. Yes, most of them are people John feels have taken their lives for granted, but that’s really the only qualification. The likes of Jason, Freddy, and Michael aren’t above killing anybody, but their favored prey is teenagers, still in those early days of sin when the potential is endless. Jigsaw will take a young adult or an old man or anybody in-between… if they don’t value their lives (in his opinion) they’re ripe for one of his games. So you’ve never been to Crystal Lake or Elm Street, so you’re not a 16-year-old pothead, big deal. Jigsaw doesn’t care. If you’ve been wasting your life, the time has come to fight for it, and in the most horrific ways possible.
Finally, there was the surprise factor. Like I said, nobody was making movies like this at the time, where you’re left questioning so many things about your protagonists. Gordon, for example, denies that he was cheating on his wife, and Cary Elwes is a good enough actor that you believe him, but that does beg the question of what actually was going on. What was causing his marital troubles, and why he was in the hotel room in the first place? If it’s just a case of him contemplating infidelity, that’s kind of anticlimactic, but if it’s anything more than that, we’ll never really know what was going on. And the finale is simply masterful. I’ve watched hundreds of horror movies, a lot of them just since deciding to do this project, and there are very few moments that stand out as being as all together shocking to me as when the dead body in the middle of the room sits up and casually reveals himself to be the mastermind of the whole scheme. I don’t mind admitting I never saw it coming, and that’s what made it great.
As is so sadly, so often the case, however, the inevitable Saw imitators took the wrong lesson from the film. Instead of constructing a morality play combined with a murder mystery, they looked at how the film ticked up the gore level and ran with that. All of a sudden we were inundated with movies like Hostel and Turistas, which were less concerned with story than with turning out scenes of agony and mutilation as graphic and medically realistic as possible. You can pretty much draw a direct line between Saw and the infamous Human Centipede, a film with little redeeming value to it. This film (and if you’re at all squeamish I suggest you skip down to the next paragraph right now) is about a mad doctor who abducts people and connects them mouth-to-anus in an effort to create some sort of horrible mass organism. Any layer of mystery or social commentary is gone, left only with making things as horrible and disturbing as possible. And that’s the tragedy of a lot of modern horror, you’ve got filmmakers who mistake making the audience uncomfortable for actual fear. As much as I liked this first Saw, I’m really glad to see that the franchise tapered off, just out of the hopes that movies like the horrible, horrible imitators are reaching the end of their cycle, and that the annals of horror cinema are again ready – as they always have been in the past – for something new.
But what could that next thing be? There are few candidates at the moment, but that’s usually how it goes. This first phase of Story Structure is over (and thanks for playing along), but that doesn’t mean we’re done yet. Come back tomorrow and we’ll take a look at where horror movies are going, what I’m going to be doing next in this little project, and how you can help me to shape it.
Blake M. Petit is the author of the superhero comedy novel, Other People’s Heroes, the suspense novel The Beginner and the Christmas-themed eBook A Long November. He’s also the co-host, with whoever the hell is available that week, of the 2 in 1 Showcase Podcast. E-mail him at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.