No, it's not 'Saw' backwards, but a hard-boiled thriller/horror with an outstanding performance from Stellan Skarsgard
It’s easy to imagine that we would jump in front of a flying bullet for those we most love – but could we endure protracted torture to save the one most precious to us?
George Orwell closed Nineteen-Eighty-Four with a blasted and chilling indictment of the fragility of human love, as Winston Smith cried ‘Do it to Julia! Not to me!’, under pressure of unbearable torture in Room 101. And this kill-or-be-tortured scenario forms the spine of a series of unimaginably brutal slayings in first-time director Tom Shankland’s Waz – a ‘torture film’ that not only redeems its own unpleasant scenario but all the inferior torture-flicks that have preceded it.
Emotionally frozen detective Eddie Argo (Stellan Skarsgård) breaks in his idealistic new partner (Melissa George) on a grisly and unfathomable series of murders where the victims come in pairs: one savagely electrocuted with the word Waz carved into their flesh, the other – always a loved one of the first victim – horrendously tortured either to death or irredeemable stupefaction.
Investigation into the mysterious signature reveals it to be the formula whereby real-life geneticist George R Price posited that there is no altruism or genuine selflessness in nature (a finding that ultimately drove the scientist to despair and suicide), and unearths the gruesome motivation of the slayings – someone is putting people to the ultimate test of love, wherein they must endure stark physical torture that can only be ended by pulling a switch to electrocute the one closest to their hearts.
Skarsgård and George quickly realise a second factor in the killings – that all the victims were involved in an unspeakable crime that took place on their own precinct. Has the otherwise unavenged victim (Selma Blair) taken the law into her own hands? George soon realises that Skarsgård is implicated in the botched handling of the crime, and knows more about the killer than he may be letting on…
If you’re wondering what an actor of the magnitude and burning screen-presence of Stellan Skarsgård is doing in ‘another’ torture flick, you have your first clue: he’s giving one of the strongest and most emotionally-powerful performances of a distinguished career, and…it’s not a torture flick in the sense of Hostel or Saw, but rather a treatise on the consumptive nature of evil and the redemptive power of love, couched in the commercial trappings of the moment.
Waz’s ideas are repellent but approached in a similarly elliptical manner to David Fincher’s Se7en – a film to which it clearly owes a huge debt in terms of style and theme. There is little on-screen grue, and the narrative prefers to push a psychological rather than visceral envelope by examining whether a mother really loves her precious son more than herself, or a gangster-father more than his heavily-pregnant wife.
Many of the answers are unbearably depressing, and Wazrepresents such an excruciating assault on our fragile notions of human decency that some viewers may not make it to the end – this would be an enormous pity; the scenario of the film’s conclusion, whilst foreseeable, is not only one of the most moving love-songs to human hope since Krzysztof Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Love (1988) but issues directly from the character-driven thrust of the narrative.
On the technical side, the film is as dark in tone visually as thematically, and its poor sound-mix is particularly unfortunate in light of the significant amount of exposition consigned to dialogue. Belfast passes for New York well enough among all these shadows, but the hard-boiled perpetual-rain motif has already been plundered from Blade Runner by Se7en, and adds nothing novel to the mix.
Better news on the casting front as the masterly Skarsgård is ably supported by younger actors striving to match him, including Ashley Walters as the gang-member with whom Skarsgård may have an inappropriate relationship, and Selma Blair as the deranged crime-victim meting out biblical justice with a poetic twist.
Melissa George is also effective, but has little to do but provide an expository cipher as the first-day rookie who asks the questions that the audience needs the answers to. However, her faithlessness in human nature also mirrors that of the jaded viewers of recent torture-fests, and it is she who needs the regenerative power of the film’s conclusion as much as we do.
In the light of the very deceptive marketing campaign for Steven Shainberg’s superb Secretary (2002) – which re-branded a tender story of romantic redemption as a kinky spanking film – the producers of Wazmay be making a mistake in marketing it as a torture-film. Hard-core goreheads will feel slighted at the cerebral themes under examination, whilst those who would most appreciate Waz’s humanity may continue to be repulsed by its implicit association with the likes of Hostel II, the Saw films and lesser entries such as Captivity.