The Media Diorama’s review published on Letterboxd:
Saw cuts through a meticulously intricate crime mystery with nothing but bloody wits. The cultural phenomenon that has spawned an entire, albeit probably unnecessary, franchise including sequels, prequels, video games and a theme park ride (Thorpe Park anyone?). The film that put the modern legend that is James Wan on the blood-soaked Hollywood map, whilst also establishing the Wan/Whannell dream team. So, this being my first time watching it, was Saw really that sharp of a thriller? Or just blunted by its overbearing sequels? Well, suffice to say, it holds up with excellence. Two men wake up in a dilapidated bathroom with only one order: one must kill the other in order to save his family.
An ultimatum that would test the psychological stimuli and moral compasses of both the characters and the audience. Raising that inevitable question: "what would you do?". Wan immediately inserts his hyper-kinetic energy, with the assistance of the hyperactive editing team, and introduces several of his trademark directing techniques. Panoramic camera rotations, seamless switches between handheld and static and elongated takes through dark corridors. Sometimes the bursts of 30-40 cuts within a 3 second timeframe is somewhat disorientating, and the aura of TV-movie presides over the frenetic editing, however Wan just about maintains a level of cinematic quality. And with that, his unique storytelling along with Whannell'a script makes for a tantalising thriller.
The suspense immediately kicks in when we find ourselves stuck in this room with these two unknown characters. Why are they here? Who are they? How do they escape? It resembled one of those "escape room" activities that seem to be rapidly popular for recreational enjoyment these days. But then the narrative shifts. Of course Wan could not keep up the tension for an hour and forty minutes in a room, there wasn't enough substance. So he ingeniously integrated a flashback structure that slowly revealed who these characters were and why they were there tied up in chains. It had a sniff of 'Se7en' meets 'CSI: Miami'. Yet it illustrated the almost labyrinthine story that Whannell devised, with Wan carefully placing breadcrumbs. It held my attention solidly throughout. The serial killer "jigsaw", along with his puppet, was practically immortalised after this film. Horror fans would consistently quote "I wanna play a game", which is a testament to the staying power of Wan's creation.
There are however a few issues. The acting on occasion was, how can I put it, iffy. Whannell starred in the film alongside Elwes and were probably the strongest performances. Glover, Smith and Vega on the other hand were not nearly as effective. The devices and traps that "Jigsaw" created unfortunately didn't hold much memorability. Mostly because they were tainted by frantic editing, particularly the barbed wire trap, but mostly because the focus was solely on the current mystery. Which is acceptable, although the sudden focus on the "jaw breaker" device held no tension and lost the suspense raised so far, merely included just to highlight the crazed morality of the antagonist.
Oh, how could I end this review without spoiling the infamous plot twist? I jest. Unfortunately I knew about it beforehand, but its execution was effortless and I would imagine it blew everyone's mind upon release. That accompanied with the famous theme tune? Yeah. That's gold. Well there you go. Saw is still as sharp as ever and despite a few poor technical and narrative decisions, it comes as no surprise why a franchise was born. Low-budget thrills done right. As always, "in Wan we trust".