‘Saw’: Bad To The Bone, By Kurt Loder

'Saw' has a clever, how-about-this plot, and it must have been fun for the fledgling filmmakers to write.

Two men wake up — or come to, actually — in what looks like Hell’s Bathroom, a big wet grotty space filled with rusty sinks, dangling pipes and shattered glass. Each is leg-shackled to a wall opposite the other. Soon they discover a grimy bundle containing a pair of hacksaws. The saws are too flimsy to cut through the thick chains around their ankles, but as one of the men, who happens to be a surgeon, quickly realizes, they’re entirely adequate for carving through flesh and bone.

Oh, and there’s a blood-spattered body laid out in the middle of the room, beyond either man’s reach, with a pistol clutched in one hand and a little cassette player in the other. Hmm. And what have we here — each of the men has been given a tape.

“Saw” has a clever, how-about-this plot, and it must have been fun for the fledgling filmmakers — director James Wan and co-star Leigh Whannell — to write. The two kidnapped men are being tormented by a mysterious creep called the Jigsaw Killer, a virtuoso hack-and-slasher who just wants people to appreciate the beauty of life a little more. This character’s alter ego, a big weird puppet head, is serviceably spooky, in the devil-doll movie tradition of “Dead of Night” (1945) and “Magic” (1978), and of course the still-at-large Chucky, of the “Child’s Play” pictures. “Saw” can’t avoid some of the flat-footed implausibilities of the fright-flick genre, like the scary dark room that nobody in his right mind would enter, but which is about to be entered anyway. However, Wan and Whannell are trying, within their limited means, to be inventive, and you admire their desire to do so.

The movie looks like it was made for about 50 cents; but as was the case with the now-classic “Night of the Living Dead,” the cruddy no-budget sets add a sort of dismal frisson to the proceedings. However, while it’s interesting that the filmmakers were able to attract such name players as Cary Elwes, Danny Glover and Monica Potter (and, for the electro soundtrack, to secure the aid of Helmet guitarist Page Hamilton and Nine Inch Nails vets Danny Lohner and Charlie Clouser), the actors aren’t really given much to do beyond bicker and bleed, and the picture lacks the sort of evocative atmosphere that makes great horror movies memorable. This one does its bloody job fairly well, but it’ll be interesting to see what Wan and Whannell are able to achieve when they get a bigger budget. Given the shrewdly revved-up Internet hype that’s preceded the release of this film, I’d imagine that check is already in the mail.

“Birth”: Be My Baby

I admit the scene where the 10-year-old boy strips off his clothes and hops into the bathtub with the naked and waiting Nicole Kidman kind of icked me out, especially when he fixed her with a strange, sultry stare and addressed her as his “wife.” That and the scene where Kidman asks him if he’s ever made love to a girl and he says, “You’ll be my first.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or leave.

I stuck with it, though. And I learned that Kidman and her little man actually don’t have sex in the new Jonathan Glazer movie, “Birth,” which at least is one thing to recommend it. The film is beautiful, but it’s baffling. You wonder what on earth it’s trying to say. Then you wonder if it even knows. Kidman — excellent as always — plays Anna, a well-to-do Manhattan widow who’s been mourning the death of her husband, Sean, for the last 10 years. She’s finally decided to stop moping around and remarry. But then, on the night of her engagement party at her mother’s huge Upper East Side apartment, the aforementioned 10-year-old boy (moonfaced Cameron Bright) slips in, takes her aside and tells her that he is Sean — her Sean, the reincarnation of her dead husband. Anna finds this preposterous, as who wouldn’t, and so do her mother (Lauren Bacall), her pompous fiancee (Danny Huston), and the rest of the party guests. But the child won’t be put off, and over the ensuing days he demonstrates an unsettling knowledge of things that it seems only Anna’s dead husband could have known. Nobody is buying this — except, bizarrely, Anna herself. Slowly, she comes to believe that the boy is telling the truth, that he really is her Sean.

Since Jonathan Glazer’s first movie was the grippingly acidulous “Sexy Beast,” and since “Birth” is so elegantly photographed and so bravely, unhastily paced (its wintry rhythms are a little reminiscent of old Ingmar Bergman films), I kept waiting to see where he was going with this story. And when Anna told little Sean that she’d happily wait 11 years until he turned 21, and they could get married — well, I realized where he was going. He was going over a cliff. Slowly, beautifully, trailing great clouds of befuddlement. I waved goodbye.

Kurt Loder