Forget about what could have or should have been, missed opportunities and unfulfilled promise, you've got to hand it to director James Wan for having the confidence to make a debut like Saw. It's a gritty, dark, David Fincher-esque thriller not afraid of the gore or cranking up the tension. But when headstrong confidence meets inexperience the results are often overindulgent, and Saw is no exception.
It excels where most thrillers fail--a great premise. A doctor (played by Cary Elwes of the Princess Bride) and a photographer (Leigh Whannell, who wrote the script based on Wan's concept) are chained to opposing walls in what appears to be an abandoned washroom. A pre-recorded message tells the two of them the doctor's family will be shot unless the doctor kills Whannell within an allotted time. Not the easiest task, since neither man's chain is long enough to reach the gun in the middle of the room. Luckily, if you could say that, each man is given a saw, not strong enough to cut through a metal chain, but good for cutting through the leg it's attached to.
A set-up like that provides ample opportunity for a screenwriter to take anywhere. You could focus on the moral choice of one man's life versus an entire family. It could be a race against time, with detectives trying to chase down the killer ala Se7en. There could be a gruesome rundown of the killer's history, or something akin to Cube with a puzzle-solving game with life or death consequences. Or, you could do what Whannell and Wan prefer--do all of them superficially with MTV-style editing tricks and borderline nonsensical plot twists.
Whannell's script is way too complex for Wan's simple concept. Flashbacks are piled on top of themselves until its unclear whether things have happened, are happening, or exist in some state between those two. Worse, Whannell includes twists for the sheer joy of twisting, logic and continuity be damned. The elaborate tortures he concocts are among the more gruesome to hit North American cinemas, but they work better as independent entities than as a coherent movie.
Still, a director can cover up a script's rough edges in a few ways. Atmosphere is one of them, and here it's Wan's saving grace. There's a tendency to claim any film consisting primarily of dark interiors and dirt is trying to rip off Se7en's dank ambience, but it doesn't take away from Wan's work here. The crumbling plaster and shit stains surrounding the two men make it clear how bleak their outlook is. Even outside the bathroom, where cop Danny Glover is pursuing the killer, it's obvious whatever city these people are in, it's one they probably want to move away from when not entangled in the over burdened plot.
The other way to cover up a lacking script is by coaxing memorably good performances out of your actors. Saw settles for simply memorable. You're not likely to forget Elwes' weepy histrionics, Whannell's unnatural delivery or Glover's overly quick character transformations. But every so often the actors manage to restrain themselves, and when it does, a grim sense of reality settles in. Unfortunately, the hamming inevitably returns to take the viewer out of the picture.
It's not all a complete waste of your time. Constant envelope pushing and a definite sense of pressure are enough to keep you watching, even if it's not all that satisfying after the credits roll and the lights go back up. If Wan could've shown some restraint, either in his actors' performances or by cutting back on the flashbacks and high-speed cuts, or if Whannell was less concerned with twists and more with continuity, Saw could've been the horror classic it aspires to be. Instead, it's a confident mess, a mesh of overacting and jumbled storytelling only managing to halfway succeed through sheer force of will.