Australian director and cowriter James Wan's debut feature is a twisted, squirm-inducingly nasty bit of work, which isn't a criticism because that's exactly what he and cowriter Leigh Whannell had in mind. Two strangers, middle-aged Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) and seething slacker Adam (Whannell), awake at opposite ends of a large, dirty, industrial bathroom. Neither remembers how he got there. Each is chained by his ankle to a pipe. A man's corpse lies on the floor leaking blood, just out of reach, clutching a microcassette recorder and a gun. Lawrence and Adam soon discover that each of them has a personal message on the tape from a serial killer nicknamed "Jigsaw," who promises that unless one kills the other, both will die. Various objects and cryptic messages are concealed around the room, starting with a pair of hacksaws that won't cut metal but could make short work of flesh and bone. Living up to a premise this warped is no mean feat, and Wan and Whannell don't entirely succeed. The film's fractured time structure — which loops back on itself to reveal that Adam and Lawrence are not in fact strangers and slowly discloses the full scope and depth of Jigsaw's madness — is intriguing, but verges on too tricky for such a stripped-down premise. And opening up the story beyond the bathroom dissipates a certain measure of sheer, claustrophobic suspense and admits what may be the worst performance of Danny Glover's career. As damaged, Jigsaw-obsessed Detective Tapp, he's as wooden as the Jeff Fahey-caliber B-movie stalwarts you normally find in such roles. But opening the story out also clears the way for a series of elaborate set pieces illustrating the brilliantly cruel trials Jigsaw devises to test the mettle of his victims, all involving grotesque moral choices. Try not to cringe as junkie Amanda (Shawnee Smith) is forced to decide whether she'd rather dig a key out of a living man's stomach or wait for the spring-loaded contraption locked onto her head to rip off her lower jaw. The film's grayish-greenish grit-and-grime look strongly recalls SE7EN (1995), but Whannell and Wan's debt to Euro-horror of the '70s is equally evident, especially in the taunting, puppet-faced apparition that evokes Dario Argento's FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1972) and DEEP RED (1975). Whannell is stiff and veteran actor Elwes is worse, but Wan's confident, stylish direction suggests that he's a genre filmmaker to watch.
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