“Saw” is certainly the most disturbing horror film since Rob Zombie’s “House of 1000 Corpses” to have a North American mainstream release. It’s the first film from two Australian college buddies, director James Wan and screenwriter-actor Leigh Whannell, and what they’ve come up with is extremely intense and definitely not for everybody.

This movie is also an interesting case study of the different evaluations of provincial ratings boards. Here in Quebec the film is rated 13 and over with the mention “Violence”. That’s like saying “Friday Night Lights” has football. Compare this with the more thorough (and, I feel, more appropriate) Ontario rating, where it is rated 18-A with the following mentions: frightening scenes, gory scenes and disturbing content, all of which very true. I’m not going to make judgment calls on the readiness or not of our 14 year-olds to see a film like “Saw”, but I was quite surprised nonetheless by the Quebec rating.

The film begins in near-total darkness and maintains a grim look throughout. We find ourselves in the filthy bathroom of a run-down industrial building, where two men wake up ankle-chained to pipes at opposing ends of the room, not knowing why or how they got there. There’s Dr. Gordon (Cary Elwes), a surgeon, and Adam (Whannell), a high-strung photographer. Lying halfway between them in a pool of blood is a corpse with a tape recorder in one hand and a gun in the other. Finding tapes in their pockets, the men play them and discover the nightmare is only beginning as an electronically-deepened voice explains the rules of a sadistic game: if Dr Gordon fails to kill Adam within a specified timeframe, the former’s kidnapped wife and young daughter will die.

The story is then told mostly through flashbacks where we see Det. Tapp (Danny Glover) on the trail of a serial killer nicknamed Jigsaw for the puzzle piece shapes he burns onto his victims. We learn that in similar fashion to “Seven”, this killer is a moral arbiter who judges whose lives shouldn’t be allowed to go on unpunished. He says he’s “sick of people who don’t appreciate their blessings”, devising elaborately evil predicaments where he doesn’t commit the murderous acts himself but watches his victims inflict death upon themselves out of an understandable inability to escape them.

I mentioned the film is not for everyone. There are several uncomfortable moments, none more disturbing than what happens to Dr. Gordon’s family and how it is shown. But the maniac’s hideout will give horror buffs the chills they came to experience, for example by using that ominous dummy with the creepy mask to moralize the only victim who survived (Shawnee Smith in a stunningly convincing depiction of pure terror). As far as performances go, I’m truly puzzled at the many critics who found Elwes’ acting horrible. There’s some overacting there but I found him quite focused and absolutely believable, and Whannell does a very decent job as Adam.

In what is probably one twist too many, tough, there’s a trick ending that’s meant to shock you, and it may have its intended effect for a few seconds. But when you try to make sense of it, it just seems illogical, far-fetched or badly explained, take your pick. The eardrums-assaulting industrial music score and accelerated-motion shots in the pursuit of the killer make for an unnerving experience, but those who wish to see raw terror presented without compromise will be served. The nightmarish and twisted imagery of “Saw” doesn’t inherently make it memorable, but its sheer intensity makes it work as an unrelenting horror thriller.

Review by Jean-François Tremblay